I wasn’t a big reader in my early years; but I could read. My parents read to me, my sister, even my older cousins. We got free books in school. I remember each of us got a set of Dr. Seuss books: Stop That Ball, One Fish, Two Fish, Three Fish, Green Eggs and Ham. We read them over and over. The rhyme and cadence not only made them fun to read, but easy to remember. We swapped Dr. Seuss books like bubble gum cards.

I’d go to our neighborhood library or bookmobile and check out books, mostly picture books. Eventually I’d check out a knitting book or some other how-to or whatever for a class project. I was what you call a “lapsed reader.”

Before entering high school, my mom decided to give me a book that was over 200 pages as a Christmas gift. It was L. Frank Baum’s The Road to Oz. It had pictures. My mom thought I was falling behind my peers when it came to reading and definitely behind my older sister who read everything! The next book was from the summer reading list – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Now my mom tells me I have too many books. And in that stash is The Road to Oz. She’s right, but I just can’t help myself. I blame my mother. 🙂

Today, NPR ran a story about, or should I say eulogized, the end of the road for the PBS series “Reading Rainbow.” When I worked at PBS, I remember LeVar Burton always at the front of the line to testify on behalf of the value of reading, education, and public television. We loved LeVar and the “Reading Rainbow” theme heard through the halls always got you pumped up to go anywhere with him through the pages of a book.

“Reading Rainbow” was unable to secure funding from the sources that have supported it for 26 years — PBS, CPB, the Department of Education.

WNED’s John Grant (whom I’ve worked with) says “The show’s run is ending because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.”

Every show eventually comes to an end. But based on this NPR story, “Reading Rainbow” isn’t making its exit under the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

“Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.”

Why aren’t children ages 8 – 11 reading on a basic level in the richest country in the world? That’s not an unreasonable assumption. Why are we talking about reading as “luxurious space” as if it were a bourgeois sport of the leisure class. Like polo minus the horse?

The late Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers), that other PBS children’s icon once said, “children are caught, not taught.” That means the children are watching what we do and don’t do.

“I don’t have to read it, or know what’s in it. I’m going to oppose it anyways.” So said Republican Senator Jim Inhole of Oklahoma referring to the Senate health care reform bill.

What kind of example does he set as a lawmaker? Is this the only document he’s not reading when he’s voting yeah or nay? Can he read? Is the ability to read required to do his job? Should he be tested?

I remember elders with no more than a 3rd or 5th grade education in Jim Crow schools could read an entire newspaper. Once I caught my aunt reading one of my grade school books trying to catch up. I can’t tell you how important it was to them to be able to read for comprehension.

This year I was the project director for D.C.’s Big Read. The goal of the Big Read is to encourage American adults to read a book as one community and restore reading to the center of American culture. Former first lady Laura Bush, an avid reader, was the national chair and DC’s 2008 chair. I invited televison and crime fiction writer George Pelecanos to be our honorary chair for 2009. The National Endowment for the Arts, presenter of the national initiative The Big Read, asked George to answer the question “Why Read?” for their blog. George wrote about his teacher Estelle Petrukalis or Mrs. Pet:

Mrs. Pet understood the value in reading, especially for kids who wanted to go “someplace else” and leave the sameness of their day-to-day. She recognized that I had an active imagination. She also felt that by turning me on to fiction my imagination would be further ignited and I would acquire a lifetime love of not just stories but of language itself. I’m convinced that I am a professional writer and a voracious reader to this day because of Mrs. Pet and other key teachers who made a difference in my life. I read to go to that someplace else.”

George’s recent novel, The Way Home, is one of 5 books President Obama has with him on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.

Sometimes it takes a village to read a book.