John Paradis: An America that reads
There are so many things you can learn about.
But ... you’ll miss the best things
If you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
— Dr. Seuss
NORTHAMPTON — The earliest book I remember was the classic “A Fish out of Water,” a ridiculous tale about a little boy who learns a hard lesson when he ignores instructions to feed Otto, his fish, “never more than a spot, or something may happen! You never know what.” There’s a picture in my family photo album of my sister reading the book to me when I was 3 years old.
I loved the book. I still do. Today, three VA colleagues and I will be reading to children at the Nonotuck Community School in Bay State Village as part of Read Across America.
I’ll read “A Fish out of Water.” Read Across America takes place in the first week of March as a way to honor the great children’s book writer and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel, who was born in Springfield on March 2, 1904. It’s also my way to pay tribute to the author of “A Fish out of Water,” Helen Palmer Geisel, Seuss’ wife and an Amherst native, who tragically took her own life in 1967.
When I was a kid, we didn’t have Read Across America. We had something called Book Week, which goes back to 1919 when Frederic Melcher, the Malden native and editor of Publisher’s Weekly, helped introduce the celebration. Said Melcher: “By having one special week, we reaffirm our own interest and catch the attention of others who may think children’s reading is not their concern. It is. It is everyone’s concern. To be interested in books for children is not just a duty. It’s a delight.”
Melcher’s words ring true today. Children’s books are the place where most children learn to read.
But few children learn to love reading by themselves. To nurture literate, well-informed children is a noble goal, but developing a child’s lifelong love of reading is definitely a grown-up responsibility. It’s our job as parents to provide the loving link between children and books.
Just ask James Brozina.
Brozina, a retired librarian from Millville, N.J., read to his daughter, Alice Ozma, without missing a night until she went off to college. Her actual name is Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina, but she prefers the middle two names — both based on literary characters: Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” and Ozma from “Ozma of Oz,” the third book in the “Wizard of Oz” series.
“The Streak,” as they called it, wasn’t easy. Alice came home from parties in high school so she could read with her Dad. It’s a beautiful story about fathers and daughters and Alice even wrote a book about it.
To him, the streak was not only about reading but about his relationship with his daughter. It’s easy to make excuses to not get together each day.
“Everybody has 24 hours,” Brozina told me. “No watch has 26 hours on it. It’s what you do with your 24 hours. For me, it was my priority to get the reading done.” And, today, he hopes the notoriety the streak has received will encourage more parents to spend time with their children and to motivate more parents to read to their children and more adults read to others.
Today, with his daughter all grown up, Brozina reads to senior citizens. At the VA medical center in Leeds, we have volunteers who read to our elderly veterans. Everyone loves being read to, and it’s also an affirmation that reading is the key to success in education and life.
Studies have shown that, if a child is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, their academic future is at risk.
This past year, 39 percent of third-graders in Massachusetts scored below proficient in reading on MCAS.
Researchers have found that if children are taught the proper literacy skills at a young age, their chances in life are greatly improved. Bob Duffy with the Massachusetts Teachers Association says children who are read to from a young age are more likely to enjoy reading and be good at it.
In Springfield, Geisel’s birthplace, and where some of the lowest MCAS reading scores in the state are recorded, Paula Perrier, director of education for Early Childhood Centers of Greater Springfield, says it can be a struggle to get more parents to read to their children.
Many parents, she says, don’t have enough tools to help their children succeed. Many don’t speak English, others have little education themselves or may be working too much to snuggle up with a book and child at night.
So the school works hard to make sure children have books at home, that parents read to them every day, and that parents who themselves need help with reading know where to get it.
At a minimum, she encourages all her parents to just talk to their children. And then introduce a book. A parent is the child’s first teacher and what they learn at home carries over into their education. If you integrate literacy into your family’s ongoing and everyday life, it becomes more than an extra thing to do. It becomes a habit. Like Brozina’s streak, it becomes a priority.
John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the public relations manager for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.