What would our lives be like without books? I can't even imagine. I met my wife Kendall years ago because I had just read her wonderful book, The Day I Became an Autodidact and then recognized her from her photo on the dust jacket at a wedding a few weeks later. If Kendall had not written that book we never would have met and our son Charlie never would have been born. Kendall's mom wrote several best-selling novels including the much-loved A Woman of Independent Means. Books are a huge part of the daily lives of Charlie and his sister, Leah. I make my living thanks to books, working with authors and editing manuscripts for different publishers. I honestly can't imagine any part of my life without books.
Today is the second annual World Read Aloud Day. It is organized by LitWorld, an amazing organization founded by literacy expert Pam Allyn. I've had the great pleasure of working with Pam on a bunch of her books for teachers. She is a true literacy pioneer and has worked tirelessly to spread the power of literacy all over the globe, including her own backyard of New York City. World Read Aloud Day is being celebrated today in all 50 states and in over 50 countries. As I write this there is an amazing 24-hour Read Aloud event occurring in Times Square. I wish I were there!
There are almost a billion people on the planet who cannot read a book or sign their name. Needless to say, these people often face bleak futures. "Literacy is the human rights issue of our time," says Pam Allyn. "By learning to read, we all have access to information, the power of shared stories of the human experience, and a way to connect with one another. By raising our voices to connect the written word, we come together on behalf of all the world's people who long to join the world of readers." For so many people around the globe, literacy IS survival. LitWorld is involved in several initiatives in Kenya, especially working with girls clubs. Here's a brief message posted yesterday from some of the girls their work has touched.
In my family, my mom and grandmother were the most avid readers. Growing up with her immigrant parents in Newport, Kentucky, my grandmother didn't even finish high school. But she always loved reading and when she was already a grandmother, she finished school and went on to Northwestern University.
Here she is surrounded by some of her beloved books on Graduation Day in the 1950s, during a time when few women my grandmother's age went back to college. One of my most cherished possessions is my grandmother's red leather-bound copy of Madame Bovary. My late mother read anything she could get her hands on, from memoirs to fiction to reference books. The few books of hers that I have with me now are also prized possessions. I have her childhood copy of The Wizard of Oz with her own crayon scribbles on the beautiful color illusrations by W. W. Denslow.
Both Leah and Charlie have enjoyed hearing this book read aloud. In the photo above, Leah is clutching my mother's book while dressed as author L. Frank Baum at a Wizard of Oz sing-along years ago at the Hollywood Bowl. She got to go onto the stage and meet some of the actual Munchkins from the film as well as Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft.
When I was growing up, I used to write to my favorite TV stars such as Catwoman and the Walton kids. I also wrote to my favorite authors. As I mentioned last year following the death of actress Patricia Neal, one of my all-time favorite authors was her husband, the brilliant Roald Dahl.
Two of my favorite books were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. At first glance they seemed to be fun, colorful children's stories, but the books were actually dark, macabre studies of human fallibility. While protagonists Charlie and James exhibited an innocence and optimism that belied their bleak, poverty-stricken lives, they were surrounded by a coterie of unsavory, mean-spirited, and even sadistic characters. I don't think any so-called children's author in history understood the dark side of childhood as well as Roald Dahl. I longed to communicate with the creator of these sinister tales and I wrote him a letter addressed simply Roald Dahl, Buckinghamshire, England.
The few words that Roald Dahl wrote back to me on a postcard from Norway are implanted in my brain and I can recite them without taking a breath: "My dear Danny -- Your splendid letter has followed me here. Thank you so much for writing. With love from Roald Dahl." I used to study the Rand McNally globe in my bedroom and imagine the journey my splendid letter took as it traveled from Dahl's estate in England all the way to his vacation resort in Spitsbergen, Norway. It was a life-changing moment.
I read countless books to my children when they were very young, but each had their favorites. When Leah was a toddler, it was a version of "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe" and I can remember the exact intonations I used when I read lines like "She had SOOOO many children, she didn't know what to do!" There's a book called How Kind that I've probably read to Charlie about a thousand times. There's a page where a rabbit, wanting to be kind to a cow (don't ask!), picks some flowers and presents them to the bovine. Now whenever Charlie sees that page, he bends over to smell the flowers printed there. He recently discovered Go, Dog, Go! which was also a favorite of Leah's, and is a little OCD about needing to hear it at least five times in a row or he'll go nuts. And no skipping of pages, thank you very much.
Charlie's new thing is to actually try to get INTO the book physically. If there's a picture of a horse or car (his two favorite things), he'll literally climb onto the page of the book for a ride!
I remember the moment when Leah first read on her own. I forgot which book (I think it was Dr. Seuss) but we were in a hospital courtyard visiting Kendall's Uncle Thomas and Leah just picked up the book and started reading out loud. It was magical. To me it felt like the emotional scene in The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller suddenly makes the connection between the words that Annie Sullivan has been signing into her hand and the actual things they represented. Reading IS magic. Reading can transport you anywhere you want to go.
Join with LitWorld today and celebrate the power of words and stories to change worlds! Read aloud to someone you love!