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Ask Amy: New holiday tradition revolves around reading

Thursday, December 9, 2010; 12:00 AM

Dear Readers: My first book was Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham." My family's copy landed in my hands after my older siblings had practically read the covers off of it.

My mother read it aloud to me (repeatedly) until I finally unlocked the code and started to read by myself.

Everybody has a first book; or, rather, everybody should have a first book.

Unfortunately, in a season that has already seen record-setting pre-orders for a video game, statistics on reading and literacy are alarming:

According to literacy organizations, less than half of young children in this country are read to regularly. A high percentage of American families have no children's books in the home.

This holiday season I am putting my column where my heart is, and so I'm asking "Ask Amy" readers to celebrate by giving a book to a child, through a homegrown campaign called, "A Book on Every Bed."

Here's how it works:

Take a book. Wrap it. Place it on a child's bed so it's the first thing she sees on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday you celebrate). That's it.

I'm working with the Family Reading Partnership, a literacy organization in my home town of Ithaca, N.Y., to spread the word about the importance of reading with children.

A million stories: Our goal is for a million American children to wake up to a wrapped book on their beds.

This is not a fundraising appeal. This is not about buying books (the book you give can be passed down).

"A Book on Every Bed" is an appeal to spread the love of reading from parents to children. We also want to encourage families to share books by reading aloud.

Santa brings a Pulitzer: This idea was inspired by one of America's favorite writers. Historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough says that every Christmas morning during his childhood, he woke up to a wrapped book at the foot of his bed, left by Santa.

McCullough's children (and now grandchildren) are also recipients of this literary largess, creating a wonderful tradition.

When he heard about this effort, Mr. McCullough e-mailed me: "There are few things that start the day off better, and especially on Christmas, than discovering a new book at the foot of your bed.

"I think my love of books began on Christmas mornings long ago and the love has never gone stale."

Start a tradition: My hope is that other families will enjoy a tradition that revolves around reading together. I further hope that librarians, teachers, bookstore owners and literacy advocates spread this idea as far and wide as it will go, making it possible for any family that wants a child to receive a book to get one.

Reading is a vital life skill. Reading leads to a life filled with ideas, feelings and creative expressions.

Reading will make you smart. It will also make you less lonely, because a person with a book is never alone.

Books can be lifelong friends - ready to be opened when a person has an extra minute in the carpool line, or stacked in an unruly pile next to the bed, awaiting that next dark night of the soul - when a reader craves illumination and the company of beloved characters.

Literacy starts early: Thoughtful parents introduce books very early in life. They read to their own bellies while pregnant, let their infants chew on cardboard books and encourage their toddlers to leaf through picture books.

Kids who grow up surrounded by books and stories have a leg up in life. Because children who love books grow up to be good and attentive listeners. And kids who read for pleasure have ready access to heroes.

Wrap and read it together: This is a simple concept with one big goal: to raise and foster a generation of readers.

I would love to hear (and share) your ideas and stories of book giving and receiving - before, during and after the holiday season. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and through the address below.

Readers can also see a home video of me reading with my favorite toddler; posted on familyreading.org.

Write to Amy Dickinson at askamy@tribune.com or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611. Distributed by Tribune Media Services

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