Weekly Column by Senator Susan Collins
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” On March 2, we can all help our nation’s children set sail on a wonderful voyage of discovery, imagination, and possibilities by celebrating Read Across America Day.
For 13 years, this particular date has been set aside because it is the birthday of one of the world’s favorite children’s book authors – Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Everyone has a favorite Dr. Seuss book, but the one that stands apart is, of course, The Cat in the Hat.
The story behind this classic book is fascinating. In 1954, Life magazine published an alarming report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not reading simply because many of their books were boring. Geisel, already a successful author and cartoonist, was given a list of 250 words by his editor and the challenge of turning them into a “book children can’t put down.” Geisel cut the list down to 236 words and produced a captivating book that hasn’t been put down ever since.
Despite much effort and some progress, early literacy remains a problem. The National Institutes of Health has estimated that about 20 million of America’s 53 million school-age children have difficulty reading, and intervention often occurs too late. For those children who reach the third grade without the ability to read, every assignment is a struggle and every day in the classroom can bring embarrassment. Children without basic reading skills are at a greater risk of losing their natural curiosity and excitement for learning.
The key to success is to attack the problem right away. If a child’s reading difficulty is detected early and he or she receives help in kindergarten or first grade, that child has a 90 to 95 percent chance of becoming a good reader. By contrast, if that intervention does not occur, the “window of literacy” closes, and the chances of the child ever becoming a good reader plummet. Moreover, if a child with reading disabilities becomes part of the special education system, the chances of his leaving special education are less than five percent.
While there are many ways that teachers and lawmakers are addressing this issue, nothing can replace the learning that takes place during interaction between parents and their children. Much of the learning and preparation that make reading possible occurs long before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children whose parents read to them three or more times a week are almost twice as likely to be able to identify every letter of the alphabet by the time they enter kindergarten. They are also more likely to be able to count to 20 and write their own names. When a child enters kindergarten already recognizing letters and familiar with books, she or he is better prepared to learn and less likely to encounter difficulty in learning to read.
One of my first jobs as a teenager was reading to children during “Story Hour” at the public library in my hometown of Caribou. I learned at that early age that encouraging children to read is an investment in our children's education and, ultimately, an investment in the future of our country. That is why I have made it a priority to support funding for reading programs and to visit as many schools as I can throughout our state to read to as many children as possible.
To date, I have visited more than 170 schools throughout Maine and have had the wonderful opportunity to share some of my favorite books with thousands of children. I often read books by Maine authors, such as Antlers Forever by Frances Bloxam, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, and The Sea Chest by Toni Buzzeo. The words and illustrations in these books are wonderful, but reading books by Maine authors also helps show students that they too can grow up to write books. Taking the time to read to children is not only a worthwhile investment but also a rewarding experience.
Read Across America Day will be celebrated with special events in schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the country. But capturing the spirit of this special day can be achieved through a much simpler act: spending 30 minutes of your time each day to enlarge a child’s world through a book. It is my hope that “Read Across America” will continue to encourage families to get into a daily practice of reading to their children and helping them enjoy the magic of books.
I applaud schoolteachers, librarians, and most of all, parents, for their commitment to teaching children the joys of reading. I encourage all Mainers who have or spend time with young children to observe and enjoy Read Across America every day, and to help them begin this great adventure. Remember, as they say in Seussville, "You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”