Bokol Haram and the Privilege of Reading

This time of year, newspapers and magazines are filled with “summer reading” suggestions, and friends – in person and online – ask others for tips for “beach reads” and long flights.

However, when I sat at the boarding gate and walked down the aisle of a recent flight (and looked around my own house, for that matter), I saw kids watching videos and playing games on their iPads and smart phones. Not a book or magazine was in sight.

Is it just my perspective, or are kids turning away from the printed word?

According to DoSomething.org, 1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read. About half of 4th graders report that they read “almost every day,” while just 20 percent of 8th graders can say the same. Not surprisingly, illiteracy is directly linked to juvenile crime, economic hardship and poor health.

And so, when more than 250 young girls in Nigeria are abducted by Bokol Haram because they want to learn, they ache to become literate, why aren’t American kids more interested and appreciative?

summer readingWhen I was growing up, the local library held summer reading contests. My friends and I loved walking home from the library with armloads of books, and – certainly because we had fewer entertainment options – we couldn’t wait to dive into the stories  and chart our accomplishments. I know, times have changed, and I need to get past my nostalgia.

Nevertheless, I’m so glad that nostalgic adults like me are supporting the efforts of LeVar Burton, who is working to bring back Reading Rainbow.

Most of you recall that Burton hosted the PBS kids’ show for 23 years, from 1983 to 2006. Reading Rainbow, which framed episodes around children’s books, earned 26 Emmy Awards and a host of other accolades during its long run.

After its cancellation, Burton, along with his business partner Mark Wolfe, purchased the rights to the Reading Rainbow franchise and created a tablet app to promote literacy.

More than a million downloads later, the two are now working on an online version, and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to make the website – with interactive reading activities and lesson plans – available to under-funded classrooms.

As I read in Parade magazine yesterday, Burton’s Kickstarter campaign raised a million dollars in each of its first three days, for a total of $5.4 million before it closed last week. The original target was to $1 million. I find that a very hopeful sign.

So, for now, I’m going to remind my kids how fortunate they are to be surrounded by books, and I will encourage them to spend part of each summer day or evening curled up with a book. In fact, I’m going to grab an Ann Patchett book and model that right now.

– Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 7 July 2014
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