First Lady Laura Bush talks about the role of reading

Reporter Abraham McLaughlin interviewed First Lady Laura Bush about reading's role in national policy – and in her own life.

Monitor: What do you think of the trend of reading being a civic or group activity?

First Lady Laura Bush: People are really interested in ideas. And when books are filled with ideas - and [when there's an] opportunity for the whole community to read a book like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' - the discussion and ideas that come out of that [are] instructive for people.

That's why these book festivals are so popular all across the country. I think it's that sense of community. I remember at the Texas Book Festival ... there really was almost a sense of [it being] a brotherhood and sisterhood of readers.

Monitor: What is the right role for government - and civic leaders - in promoting reading?

Bush: Because my husband's president, I actually have a bully pulpit right now. And this is what I've always been interested in. My whole life I've loved to read. Reading has been something I love to do if I was bored, if I was tired, if I was sad, if I was happy.

I also think that because I was a big reader it helped me be very successful in school. I want parents to know that - to realize their children will be much more successful in school if they can give their children a love of reading and a lot of books.

So state governments and local governments, school districts, and the federal government all have a role in making sure children learn how to read so they can be lifelong readers. Almost everything you learn in school is really dependent on your reading ability. So it's very important to read by the fourth grade.

One part of the education bill that [my husband] wants is testing that states will devise about the curriculum they want their students to learn - to make sure we know whether or not children are learning. Because what happens is some percentage of students don't learn to read - and they just get moved on through. And no one really knows that they don't know how to read until it's really almost too late.

Monitor: How did you avoid letting things like TV distract your daughters from reading?

Bush: Well, that was easy: We had television, but we didn't turn it on very often.

Monitor: My mom only let me watch Mr. Rogers!

Bush: Yes, exactly! [My children] watched Mr. Rogers from when they were babies. They would stand by the television and say, "Ah-bah, Ah-bah" all day. They didn't know when, "Mr. Ah-bah" was on, but they'd call for him.

That's the role parents have. Parents are the adults in the home. They're the ones who can keep the television turned off. Also, I know this is tempting, [but] it's easy to turn on a video and put your child in front of it. It's harder to put aside the other things you have to do - and sit down with your child and read. Parents need to do the hard thing.

Monitor: What were your favorite books growing up?

Bush: This is a very interesting question for librarians. [It's] like asking which child is your favorite child!

When I was little, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I loved "Little Women." My mother read Little Women to me before I could read. And we cried when Beth died.

[With] our own children, we read the Dr. Seuss books to them. George used to read "Hop on Pop" to Barbara and Jenna. He would lie on the floor to read it, and they would jump on him! They would literally hop on pop.

Their favorite books when they were babies were the books like "Goodnight Moon" and Pat the Bunny and all those classics - the Margaret Wise Brown classics, "The Runaway Bunny." When I was a teenager I liked, of course, "Catcher in the Rye..."

Monitor: "Island of the Blue Dolphins" was one of my favorites.

Bush: "Island of the Blue Dolphins" - I loved reading that when I was a teacher to students. All those Newbery winners were great to read. "Sounder" - I remember how powerful it was when I read that to a class. "Charlotte's Web." "Old Yeller" - and that came out of Texas.

Monitor: Does this festival - and your speaking to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday - mark your emergence into the realm of politics and policy?

Bush: Sure, I guess you could say that. But these are the issues I've worked on my whole life. I had a summit [in Texas] very similar to the [one] we had here this summer [on early childhood development]. It was followed that legislative session by money that went to adding teacher training for day-care workers and head-start workers.

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