Ask Amy: This year, give the gift of literacy

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.

(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

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