'Parents need to do the hard thing' to help kids read

Laura Bush has never been one to seek - or particularly enjoy - the kleig-light glare of life in the public eye.

But this week, like it or not, she makes a complete transition to the national political scene. To make that leap, she's selected a subject dear to her heart - reading.

It's a topic about which she speaks comfortably, with a confidence and clarity that her husband might wish he could emulate. She testifies before the Senate Education Committee today and hosts the White House Assembly on Reading on Thursday.

Over the weekend, she hosted the first National Book Festival, based on the book festival she ran in Texas. Seated on the steps of the ornate Library of Congress, - and looking out over a lawn filled with festival-goers - she spoke briefly with the Monitor.

"Because my husband's president, I actually have a bully pulpit right now," she says, in soft but clear Texas tones. "But 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 - because my mother read to me and I read a lot - it helped me be very successful in school...."

Switching seamlessly into the public-policy ramifications of a life filled with books, Mrs. Bush adds: "I want parents ... 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."

Like past first ladies, she has taken up a cause that complements her husband's political agenda. But it's clear this is not simply a topic that allows her to fill the hours. She expects results from her work. After a reading summit she held in Texas, she notes, the state legislature boosted funds for training day-care providers and Head Start teachers in the basics of teaching reading.

Asked what her favorite books were across the years, she demurs with the skill of the best politicians. Asking librarians to name their favorite book, she says, is "like asking which child is your favorite child."

But she singles out books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. And "my mother read 'Little Women' to me before I could read. And we cried when Beth died."

Mrs. Bush is famously protective of her children - and responds with a steely look when interviewers bring up her twin daughters' recent underage drinking.

But she's happy to talk about the joys and rigors of parenting. How did she prevent TV from dominating her daughters' early years? "Well, that was easy: We had a television, but we didn't turn it on very often," she says in a pleasant but motherly tone that makes you believe it.

"Parents are the adults in the home - and they're the ones who can keep the television turned off," she says. "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."

She did acknowledge that the children were permitted to watch "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" "from when they were babies." In fact, "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."

She also let slip her husband's role in reading to the girls. "George used to read 'Hop on Pop' to Barbara and Jenna," she says. But they would make him lie on the floor - and would jump on top of him while he read. "They would," she says, laughing, "literally hop on pop."

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