This year, give the gift of literacy
My annual "Book on Every Bed" campaign is a tribute to the power of a good story
Let’s start with a little story.
Here’s one of my most trenchant memories of my mother Jane:
I was a cheerleader in high school (of course I was), and my mother attended a few of the games in order to see why I kept leaping, yelling, and trying to do splits in the living room.
My bestie Kirk’s mother Edith was also going to be at the game, and he wanted for these two moms to meet. He asked me what he should tell his mother in order to identify mine in the crowded stands.
I told him to look for the woman who was reading while the players were on the court, and watching during the cheers.
I was kidding, really — but it turned out that this is exactly how his mother found mine. There she was, sitting in the middle of the stands with her coat on, reading Anna Karenina, of all things (her Tolstoy phase).
Like just about everybody else I knew in childhood, we didn’t have much — although to be honest we probably had less than many. But growing up in a household filled with books and with a mother who was a reader set me on my life’s path. (I can go to the library in my hometown and still find books that my mother borrowed, decades ago.)
Thirteen years ago I started promoting giving books at Christmastime, and although this seems (to me) like a fairly obvious gift — it is shocking how many American homes do not have books in them.
According to USAreads.org, 61% of Americas low-income children are living in homes without books. That’s ZERO books.
Click here for statistics that reveal the connection between having books in the home and later academic success
Influenced by Brigid Hubberman, a lifelong literacy advocate in Ithaca, NY, we launched a little homegrown literacy campaign called “A Book on Every Bed,” now in its 13th year. I’ve come to realize that after 20 years of writing the “Ask Amy” advice column, doling out gobs of advice and counsel — this literacy effort is probably the most high-impact thing I’ve done. It has certainly made me the proudest.
[Below is my column, with thanks to David McCullough, Brad Meltzer, LeVar Burton, Carla Hayden, Jacqueline Woodson, and countless other writers and readers who have helped to share this very simple idea, as well as the hero-librarians, teachers, and booksellers who have spread the good word.]
Dear Readers: I’m happy to take a tiny break from hosting your questions, as I devote this column to my annual literacy campaign, now in its 13th year. This is where I urge readers to celebrate the gift-giving season by putting “A Book on Every Bed.”
All literacy starts with a story, and the inspiring story behind this effort came to me from Pulitzer prize winning historian David McCullough, whose charmed and productive life was entirely shaped by the sharing of books and stories, starting early in his childhood.
Mr. McCullough died this past August at the age of 89, and many of the tributes to his life and work mentioned the impact his parents and grandparents had on his life and eventual vocation, by exposing him to literature, reading aloud, and treasuring books in the household.
McCullough personally granted me permission to use his own Christmas story as a way to inspire readers to give books as gifts during the holiday season.
Every Christmas morning, starting in his very early childhood, David and his three brothers would awaken to a wrapped book placed at the end of their bed. Santa had left the gift there, and it was the very first present unwrapped and enjoyed on Christmas morning.
It’s so simple! Family members can wrap a new book, or share a favorite from their own childhood. The important thing is what happens next: sitting and reading together.
Over the years, fellow writers and literacy advocates have helped to promote and spread the Book on Every Bed idea by sharing their own literacy stories in this space. Jacqueline Woodson, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, and literacy hero LeVar Burton have all generously lent their names to this effort. Each shared a story of a treasured book, and each wrote movingly about the indelible and lifelong impact of being introduced to books in childhood.
This year I’ve turned to one of the most prolific and generous writers I know: Brad Meltzer.
Brad’s writing career is truly genre-spanning. He writes best-selling legal and history thrillers, and is the author of groundbreaking stories for DC Comics. Along with artist Chris Eliopoulos, Brad has created an important biography series for very young readers: “Ordinary People Change the World.”
BRAD MELTZER’S STORY:
“Growing up, my family didn’t have a ton of money. And we certainly didn’t have books. But my grandmother had one of the most powerful objects in existence: a library card. I still remember her taking me to the public library in Brooklyn, New York. It was there that the local librarian pointed to the shelves of beautiful books and told me, “This is your section.”
“I almost fell over. I honestly thought she meant that all the books were mine (though, really, they were, weren’t they?). It was a day that made my world bigger and immeasurably better. And the best part were the new friends my librarian introduced me to, like Judy Blume and Agatha Christie. “Superfudge” was the first book I ever coveted. But it was Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” that rocked my socks. Since I was a boy, no one understood why I was reading it. But I was a boy trying to figure out how girls worked.
“From there, Judy Blume taught me one of the greatest lessons in life—that you must love yourself for who you are.
“Today, those lessons I learned in the library inspire every children’s book I write: “I am Amelia Earhart,” “I am Abraham Lincoln,” “I am Rosa Parks,” “I am Albert Einstein”— and every other title in our Ordinary People Change the World series. Indeed, the series started because I wanted to give my own children heroes of kindness, compassion and perseverance, which is what Judy Blume and Agatha Christie gave to me.
“Years ago, I tried tracking down my librarian. She was long gone. So is my grandmother, the only family member who ever read to me. I owe them both forever. And in their honor, this holiday season, give a child a book. The rewards will truly last a lifetime.”
Working with the Children’s Reading Connection (childrensreadingconnection.org), a national literacy campaign in Ithaca, NY, I received the thrill of my own career as a reader and writer by giving each child, teacher, and staff member of my rural primary school books of their own to take home. Watching these young children clutch their new books tightly was a joy and a reminder that literacy really starts with a human connection.
[Every child, teacher and staff member at the Freeville primary school went home with books!]
Brigid Hubberman, Director of the Children’s Reading Connection, strives to take literacy into underserved communities. “Inspired by ‘All Are Welcome’ by Alexandra Penfold, across the country schools and communities are invited to come together to create a culture of welcoming and belonging, kindness and love.
“Children’s Reading Connection is starting an ‘All Are Welcome’ movement, and schools and communities across the country are invited to join in.
“Books bring us together and build community. Shared book experiences connect people together, set the stage for collaboration, and serve as a catalyst for exciting and innovative action.”
[Brigid, Amy, Lisa, BOOKS]
I asked Lisa Swazye, General Manager of my local Indy bookshop Buffalo Street Books (Buffalostreetbooks.com) for fresh recommendations about what new books to look for this season. Her book picks across genres are below:
The Mouse Who Carried a House on His Back - Jonathan Stutzman (illus Isabelle Arsenault) - a mouse's house somehow has room for everyone no matter how big or scary they may be
Farmhouse - Sophie Blackall: An artist cleverly & beautifully recreates the lives lived in a crumbling old farm house
Middle Grade readers
The Vanquishers - Kalynn Bayron (a tight-knit group of friends take on vampires)
Witchlings - Claribel Ortega (a group of misfit witchlings struggle to earn their power)
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor - Xiran Jay Zhao ( a 12-year-old Chinese American boy takes on ancient spirits)
Nonfiction: Better Than We Found it: Conversations to Help Save the World
Fiction: Ain't Burned All the Bright - Jason Reynolds (Young Peoples' Literature Ambassador Jason Reynolds on what matters most)
Accomplished: A Georgie Darcy Novel - Amanda Quain (a contemporary Jane Austen retelling with a lot of heart)
All This Could Be Different - Sarah Thankam Mathews (a National Book Award finalist debut on love, friendship, and survival as a young person in today's world)
Now is Not the Time to Panic - Kevin Wilson (a quirky and powerful coming of age)
Woman of Light - Kali Fajardo-Anstine (a vivid alternative Western)
Adult non fiction
Solito - Javier Zamora (memoir by poet Zamora about his experience as a young boy immigrating to the US from Latin America)
This is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You - Susan Rogers (record producer turned brain scientist explains why you fall in love with music)
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
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As a retired librarian ( 39 years in the public library, 27 of which I worked with children) this warmed my heart. I read thousands of books to my child, not counting the hundreds I read out loud at story time when she was in utero!
Because our grandkids live in Thailand, we send a Christmas box each year. Following our mothers’ practice of giving us books as we grew up and giving their grandchildren (our kids) books as they grew, we include books in every box we send throughout the year. One year we may have overdone it on the books as our granddaughter, who was perhaps six at the time, asked me shyly, “Next time, Grandma, could you send something NOT books?” We did.
But this year’s box included many books for both of them. We always read the books before sending so we can talk about the story or subject with them. I have to start my reading earlier each year as they move into the next reading level. No more quick reads for Grandma and Grandpa.