Thursday, October 29, 2009

Behind The Book

I want to go on record as saying that the gift of reading is probably the greatest gift a child can receive. It's something taken for granted, but life-changing. When I heard Martha Southgate say she'd met with a young man who had told her that "Third Girl From The Left" (her novel) was the first book he had ever read I was moved.

How lucky that young man was, how lucky the writer for giving a priceless gift, the love of words.

There's something called Butterfly Theory that says the simple flutter of a single butterfly's wing can change the world. It sounds too phenomenal, bordering on preposterous, in fact its almost maudlin in its sense of careless hope.

How much impact can we make on one person's life? And how would we measure it? So many people need so much help it's overwhelming. There's poverty, illness, gross violation of the soul. How can teaching a child to read matter so much?

Well, it's simple really. This small gesture opens a young mind, bridges the gap between what is impossible to what is possible. It takes great effort and discipline. It's almost biblical teaching a child to fish instead of giving the child the fish, yet the irony here is that the reader cannot read without a book.

Pardon my slippery sense of allegory there is indeed a point. I've come to know Behind the Book for a few years and have seen some readings, attended a function or two, and seen some of these extraordinary people at work. They're goal is simple to teach the young to read, but what is so challenging is getting the necessary materials, the books, to the classrooms. Sounds hard to believe, but in today's world with so much corporate and bureaucratic irresponsibility where time and again bailouts go to the deepest pockets while the smallest pockets stay empty pockets. Children suffer.

There are schools who seriously need to beg for books. That is a crime. It's unconscionable. Behind the Book has done something at a critical juncture. While they are not a new kid on the block, they've been around since the Spring of 2003, what they do is heroic. They offer books, they offer time. They put the authors, whose books have been donated, in the classrooms to get kids excited about reading.

Jo Umans is the founder and fearless leader of Behind the Book. She gathered the idea for her organization while serving as a part-time librarian in her sons private school. She saw how excited students reacted to the guest authors as the writers read their words aloud. A kind of magic unfurled. This, she figured, could take place in the NY City public schools if the resources and the right people worked together.

If you peruse the list of authors on their roster you will be amazed at all the support for this fabulous organization. Francine Prose, Myla Goldberg, Jennifer Egan, A.M Holmes, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and on and on and on.

It's about cultivating a lifetime love of books.


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  2. Oops! I accidentally removed my first comment. Wanted to say that this is a wonderful post. I recently attended a Dave Eggers book event in New Orleans and was inspired by his creation of tutoring centers around the country. Bravo to the organizations and authors who work to encourage books and learning to children. And to you for spreading the word in your blog.