Love of books cultivated at library

Activist works to share her zeal with others

Reading life

July 25, 1999|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Maggi G. Gaines, the journey from avid childhood reader to passionate Baltimore literacy activist began in New York City with a three-block walk home from elementary school and daily stops at the 67th Street library along the way.

"I went to the library every single day of my life after school and I loved it," said Gaines, executive director of Baltimore Reads, a nonprofit organization that provides adults with a second chance to learn to read or improve their skills and helps children at risk of not learning to read.

"I loved the librarians, I loved the books and I loved the process of discovering new books," she said. "Books were just a wonderful source of pleasure and learning for me. I still love to go to the library."

Inspired by positive early memories of reading, Gaines has wholeheartedly embraced her job, making it a personal mission to bring the opportunities of reading to all. A self-described literacy "zealot," she believes that society has a responsibility to teach everyone to read.

"My early experiences have left with me a sense of wonder about books and the printed word," she said. "Reading leads you down a wonderful road of freedom and opportunity. It is the admission ticket to everything in life and the fundamental building block of being an active participant in the world."

Gaines, 50, grew up in a family of readers. Her parents, grandparents and aunt all read to her, sharing fairy tales and wonderful ethnic stories, she said.

She always had a book in her hand, whether she was under the bedcovers with a flashlight, in the living room, on the subway or in a bus. Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were favorites, and she read one after the other, waiting with excitement for the next adventure in the series.

At her grandparents' house, she discovered with delight the Bobbsey Twins books tucked away that had once belonged to her mother and aunt. She loved E. B. White's "Charlotte's Web," which she read over and over, and identified with the characters in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."

"The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster was a gift from her uncle to an 11-year-old Gaines that still rests on her bookshelf. This "kid-friendly" adventure story is full of "philosophical underpinnings about the nature of life and human existence," she said.

She remembers the first time she read "Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl," a story of the Holocaust that Gaines believes speaks to everyone.

"One of the messages of the book is that only in a society where we look out for the rights of everyone are anybody's rights really secure," she said. "We have to look out for the right of people to read."

Another favorite was "As a Driven Leaf" by Milton Steinberg, a work of modern fiction that brought the age of the Talmud to life for a Jewish girl.

At 16, she read Dag Hammarskjold's "Markings" -- a collection of writings by the Swede who was United Nations secretary general from 1953 until his death in 1961.

"That book had a profound impact on me," she said. "He was a solitary guy, very mission-driven, who believed passionately in people and peace. His writings resonated with me."

When she had two children, she enjoyed the chance to re-experience the books she loved as a child.

"I can never remember not reading to my kids," she said. "When they were really little babies just able to sit up, I would read cardboard books to them. It doesn't matter one bit if they can understand what you're saying. They are getting a positive, book-related moment. I don't think you can start reading to a child too early."

Reading was family fun time. She took her youngsters to the library, where they read Dr. Seuss books, the misadventures of Amelia Bedelia, "Bedtime for Frances" by Russell Hoban, Richard Scarry storybooks, Frog and Toad tales by Arnold Lobel, poetry and Kay Thompson's Eloise stories.

"I read Margaret Wise Brown's `Goodnight Moon' over and over again," she said. "I could probably recite it now."

She set a good example by reading herself, she said.

These days she usually has a book with her in case she has a few extra minutes in a busy day. Not long ago she busied herself with stacks of mystery books. Then she read Jon Katz's "Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change," about turning 50.

"My forays into the library as a child fostered a lifelong love of reading and school that has really made a huge difference for me," Gaines said. "And I think reading can make a difference for everybody."

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