Love of reading was born in childhood

First lady Laura Bush to share her passion for books as host of the National Book Festival

September 21, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

Before she could even read, she remembers, her mother, Jenna Welch of Midland, Texas, lulled her to sleep many a night by reading aloud from Little Women. This summer, she made her way through three biographies, an epic on life in the Ukraine, and Marilynne Robinson's newest novel, Gilead, in which a 77-year-old preacher recounts his life and times for his 7-year-old son.

For Laura Bush, reading has always offered links to the past, a passage to worlds unknown, and a way of coming home again - a ticket to a richer life. All of which may explain why America's first lady continues to be as eager as ever to host the National Book Festival, the fifth annual version of which will have Washington's National Mall overflowing with book fans Saturday.

"The ... festival is a great way for families and friends to share the creative works of some of America's most-loved authors," said Bush, a former librarian and schoolteacher, in a White House chat yesterday. "Readers can [hear] writers speaking about their books, have books autographed, meet storybook characters and enjoy a day on the National Mall. ... As always, it will be a lot of fun."

Sponsored and organized by the Library of Congress, the festival will present more than 80 prize-winning authors, poets and illustrators who will offer readings, gab with fans, discuss the creative process and take part in signings scheduled throughout the day.

Guest artists will include such fiction luminaries as E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime), Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) and Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities); stars of children-and-teens literature including R.L. Stine (the Goosebumps series), Jack Gantos (Rotten Ralph) and Dave Pelzer (A Boy Called It); and acclaimed historians and biographers from Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers) and David McCullough (John Adams and 1776) to David Brooks, The New York Times columnist who wrote the 2000 bestseller Bobos in Paradise.

"And let's not forget the poets," said Librarian of Congress James Billington, who joined Bush in the Map Room of the first family's residence. The festival's principal organizer since 2001, he said he learned to love verse as a boy when his father read him John Keats' "Ode On A Grecian Urn" - a poem he has never forgotten.

Overall, the day is "a celebration of reading, which is an entryway to so much that's important in life," said Billington, 76. "If there aren't good words coming in, there won't be good words coming out. We like to spotlight the activity once a year, to make it truly fun."

To that end, characters familiar to kids and parents will be on hand. Children can have their pictures taken with Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Scholastic Books character; Anne of Green Gables; or Arthur, the 8-year-old aardvark who stars in the PBS series of the same name, based on the books by Marc Brown.

"I hope grown-up readers will bring their families out," Bush said.

That prospect harks back to her Texas childhood. Having listened in on Little Women - and sobbed with her mother when the character Beth died - the future first lady went on to discover other Louisa May Alcott works, including Jo's Boys and Little Men. She identified with Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie - "we had the same name, and we both had brown hair," she said - and felt she grew up with that character.

As a Texas schoolteacher, she read to rapt fourth-grade classes from Charlotte's Web, Old Yeller and other American classics. "I read aloud in the period after lunch," said Bush, who believes that activity promotes emotional bonding and builds children's self-esteem. "It was the students' favorite time. Sometimes it seemed as if Charlotte and the other characters were right there in the room with us."

Her tastes have broadened considerably in the time since. This summer, she devoured The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, by Patricia O'Toole - a "biography of friendship" set in post-Civil War Washington. She also read Everything Is Illuminated, the Jonathan Safran Foer historical novel on Ukrainian life, and looks forward to meeting the author this weekend.

Some, she says, are surprised to learn that her husband - who favors biography, history and sports, and "reads a lot for work" - reads as avidly, and almost as often, as she does. The pair make time for reading each night, as they've done since they were first married. Now on the commander-in-chief's nightstand: Chasing the Rodeo, journalist W.K. Stratton's narrative history of the Southwestern circuit.

Another presidential favorite: eccentric Texas musician/columnist/mystery writer Kinky Friedman, who "writes a good three books a year," the first lady says, laughing. Friedman's titles include Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola and The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic.

"I think that [choice of author] might surprise some people," she says.

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