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Opening Doors

January 12, 2012

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  -Frederick Douglass

Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a world in which all children could pursue their dreams and live up to their potential.  In the days leading up to the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I have been thinking about the different ways that reading can play a critical role in this dream, and two in particular resonate:  the ways that reading enables success; and the ways that reading opens the mind to new ideas.

There is an intangible power in reading; the ability to read enables independent access to information.  And this power has the potential to change lives.  Most oppressive regimes have tried to limit who was allowed to read as well as what materials could be read.  Throughout history, a rise in literacy has been coupled with not only an expansion of ideas and innovation, but with people demanding rights and liberties.  When a wider public grew literate and could read the bible for themselves, revolution and reformation in the church were inevitable.  Increased female literacy resulted in a push for women’s suffrage.  Although slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write, many risked severe punishment or even death to become literate.  Literacy was a step toward freedom.  Even today in emerging countries, a rise of literacy is a prelude to demands for freedom, autonomy, opportunity, and justice.

Reading is a key that opens many doors.  Without strong reading skills, it is almost impossible to attain academic success in today’s classrooms.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that reading skills are crucial to academic success.  Research has shown that children who have books at home and who have someone to read to them fare far better in school, even into their teens.  Yet many children lack both access to books and someone to read to them.  Some schools do not have weekly library time.  And maybe even worse, some school systems permanently revoke library privileges for unpaid fines.

Beyond the classroom, reading expands a child’s horizons.  Reading can take a child to unimagined worlds, can elevate the commonplace, and can illuminate what is hard to otherwise comprehend.  Reading about people with different experiences—cultural, political, religious, historical—makes both the differences and commonalities come alive.  Through reading, we see our shared humanity and appreciate the ways our differences inform our perspectives and enrich our world.

50 years ago, Ezra Jack Keats’s beloved classic A Snowy Day was the first children’s picture book to feature a black protagonist.  Since then, many books have been published with characters from diverse backgrounds.  Yet in many homes, children’s bookshelves are stocked primarily or exclusively with books either about children who look just like them or about endearing animals behaving like humans.  While there is nothing wrong with any of those books, this is a missed opportunity for expanding our children’s understanding of the world and the people who comprise it.

In this spirit of Dr. King’s dream, we offer two challenges this month.

First, we invite you to consider whether the children in your lives are reading books only about people who look and live like them (magical powers notwithstanding), and we encourage you to seek out books about people whose experiences are different.  This includes boys reading books with girls as the main character and vice versa.  Our Book Lists tab is a great place to start for recommendations of both picture and chapter books.

Second, we challenge you to think of what you can do to make reading more a part of the lives of the children you know and to put books into the hands of children who do not have them.  Consider donating books to a local school or organization.  Consider spearheading a book drive at your school or community organization.  Consider becoming a reading tutor in a local school.  Consider introducing more reading time, shared or alone, at home.

Think about the doors reading can open up in the lives of children, and try to find a way to help.

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