Outside of my family, there are two people who inspired me to become a writer: Jim Henson and Dr Seuss. But that would have been a meaningless dream if there had not been someone inside my family who told me it was okay if I wanted to write that novel… as long as I got my homework done first.
The children of readers become readers; only a lucky few get to be writers.
Where and when and how I grew up, there was a rare day indeed that wasn’t about childhood literacy. In my earliest memories, there was a shelf of books in my room. A small wooden set of shelves my dad bought at some garage sale or antique store was first. He painted it bright orange for some reason and stuffed it with Golden Books, picture books, and Storybooks telling tales from Disney and the Bible. I romped with the Poky Little Puppy, hopped in an Apple car with Mr Worm to explore the Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry, and sailed with Max the wolf boy to a far off land where Wild Things still roamed. I helped The Little Engine up a big hill and helped Grover avoid the Monster at the End of his book.
Why my dad painted that shelf bright orange, I will never know. Maybe he wanted to make it stick in my memory. Maybe he just really liked orange; we had an orange car once. Whatever the reason for its color, it was at my elbow when I sat by my sister as she read me the story of the Laura Engles Wilder’s Long Winter and Aslan’s plans for Narnia.
That shelf of a peculiar color seemed so large at one point and then suddenly it wasn’t big enough to hold our library. My sister and I branched out on our own, leaving behind story time for sitting in corners devouring the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Brothers Hardy. More and larger shelves replaced it, a library that grew at the same rate we did.
When most people picture the act of encouraging children to read, they picture a parent or grandparent reading aloud and doing all the voices as hero and villain race to the finish…
But that’s not enough and it lets those of us without our own children off the hook. A literate society springs from… wait for it… a literate society.
This is what brings me, each March 2nd to sit down and remember my parents and reflect on the orange enamel of the shelf that held the gift they left me.
Today is more than another day when I encourage everyone to sit down with a child and read if they can and donate to an organization that does if they cannot (though I do and you should if you can and should do the other if you can’t).
It takes more than that.
My parents didn’t sit me on their laps and do voices as I flipped pages. They read, conspicuously and constantly. Everyone around me read. They traded books they liked and talked about them.
Because readers sprout where they are sown and it’s all hands on deck. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world where everyone took care with words and had critical thinking skills…
Please celebrate childhood literacy today. Read to a kid. Donate to the cause. Buy books for your local libraries and schools. But understand that literacy isn’t a holiday, it’s a lifestyle. And literate children need literate societies where reading isn’t something special, it’s The Way Things Are.
If you make one day about literacy and you have made a start. Make every day about literacy and you’ve made a reader.
Visit the NEA Foundation’s website at readacrossamerica.org to learn more about how you can help improve access to books and assist the cause of a literate society in your area.