The program is funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., and spearheaded by 79-year-old Claire Kremer, who started it about 10 years ago after hearing about a similar program elsewhere.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- "Hi London, it's Daddy," Willie McKoy Jr. said. "How you doing? I hope you're doing OK and being good."
"Daddy!" 3-year-old London McKoy squealed back, and she was indeed being good, sitting more or less patiently on her mother's lap while her father's voice came through the laptop speakers in her grandmother's apartment in Geneva, N.Y., the week before Christmas.
This was a rare treat: London hadn't heard her father's voice since he was arrested in July on a drug charge and sent to the Ontario County Jail. Since then, she'd begun Head Start, her big brother had learned to spell a few words and her little sister had started trying to walk, and even dance.
That's a lot to miss, but London wasn't upset. Her dad was going to read her a story.
"I'm going to read you a book called Olivia Becomes a Vet, with a little piggie that likes taking care of animals," McKoy continued on the recording. London nestled in and waited for him to begin as her mother flipped the book to the first page.
The story was about Olivia, a precocious piglet who heals a lion of a sweet tooth, a cat of furryfootitis and a dog of red sticky jam disease. That was impressive but not very important.
What mattered was the smile on her face, and her mother's, as McKoy, 26, annotated the story with his own opinions and observations, reading as if he were in the apartment with his family.
Maintaining that connection through separation was McKoy's goal as he read from a small concrete-block room in jail, and the goal of a group of volunteers who recorded him there as part of the Storybook Project.
The program is funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and spearheaded by 79-year-old Claire Kremer, who started it about 10 years ago after hearing about a similar program elsewhere.
Twice a month, she and other volunteers carry boxes of children's books into the jail and set up in a spare room. Male and female inmates can read one book for every child in their household. The recording and the book, with a personalized message written inside, are mailed to their house the same day.
The program has grown over the years. In 2012, 140 incarcerated parents read 613 books to 320 children with the help of just 16 volunteers.
"I think (the inmates) were suspicious at first, but the word spread," Kremer said. "Sometimes I'd walk out on the street in Geneva by the library and someone would yell out, 'Hey, Storybook Lady!' "
The Berenstain Bears, Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog are some of the most frequent selections. To keep up with the demand for Goodnight Moon, the group got St. John's Episcopal Church in Canandaigua to sponsor it. The congregation there bought more than 100 copies earlier this year.
Linda Moroney, of Irondequoit, N.Y., is making a film about the program. She started filming in 2009 and is now editing and fundraising.
"As a mom, this story really appealed to me," she said. "I have two small children I read to at night. ... It's almost a sacred time. You develop literacy but you also cuddle and hold them and create warmth. These volunteers are trying to re-create that for these families during a difficult time."
Incarceration, even in short stints, puts serious strain on parent-child relationships.
More than 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trust study. They are more likely to live in poverty than other children, even taking into account other factors like parents' mental illness, substance abuse or lack of education.
Visits in prison can help mitigate that effect but are wrought with their own emotional and financial considerations. McKoy's family has not visited him at the county jail ibecause transportation is too hard to arrange.
Nicholas Wyatt, 30, decided with his fiancée not to have their 2-year-old son, Nolan, visit him. In the front cover of Curious George: Dance Party!, he wrote his son a message: "I can't wait to get home and snuggle with you and play all day long. We will have a great day."
Wyatt was arrested for unlawful use of a motor vehicle and hasn't gone to trial yet. He hoped the book would help make up for his absence.
James Lucas read books for his two sons, ages 6 and 8, but was careful not to disclose where they're coming from. A chef from New York City, Lucas is serving eight months for bail jumping and missing a court date, and he and his wife decided to tell the boys he's on another of his regular work trips.
"I don't really want the kids to see this and think something horrible's going to happen, that I'm in a bad place," he said. "One day, we may have a talk about a lot of things — sex, girls, rock and roll, jail — but not today."
This isn't Willie McKoy's first stint behind bars — he missed the births of London and his six-year-old son, Willie, or June June.
For Lukesha Wright, the mother of his children and his on-again, off-again partner for eight years, things get hard when he's locked away.
She had to leave her job to take care of the children. If she could share some of those household tasks, she'd have more time to put toward getting her GED.
"We've been through this so many times," she said. "I'm going to hope and pray he gets it and makes a better life for his children, because they love him and they deserve it."
For all his trouble staying within the law, McKoy loves his children, too. When he's home he walks June-June to school, wrestles with him and buys him snacks at the Family Dollar down the street.
What kind of snacks?
"Whatever he buys me, I'll like," June-June said.
McKoy is waiting for a trial date or settlement on his latest charges. He, too, knows his family needs him at home.
"They miss me a lot," he said at the jail. "This gives me a chance to communicate with my kids and let them know I care, regardless of whether I'm there or not."
The McKoy family's story is still to be written. But it only took a few minutes for Willie to finish reading about Olivia and her veterinary business.
"OK, London, I love you baby," McKoy said after the last page. "Be good, and have a good Christmas in case I'm not there, OK?"
"All right," she answered. The tape ended — McKoy was back in his cell — but she was still smiling.