Reading event takes Cat in the Hat and books on the road

Event organizers call Read Across America a national celebration of reading. But insiders know that it's also license to put your principal to the test.

Spearheaded by the National Education Association (NEA), Read Across America was launched last year and pegged to the birthday of children's literature maestro Theodor Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss - on March 2.

The guiding goal was to promote literacy by using the day to read to children, says NEA representative Gabrielle Lange. But the festivities have moved beyond hitting the books to something the Cat in the Hat himself would support: making a mess.

A principal in Tennessee told his students if they read 10,000 books, he'd eat worms. Well, yesterday, he chowed down on a plate-full of stir-fried wigglers. In Idaho, another principal will bathe in green Jell-O. It's her students' reward for clocking more than 10,000 hours of reading time.

School cafeterias nationwide will serve up plates of green eggs and ham and entertain visits from local "Cats" in the Hat (the event's mascot).

The idea for Read Across America was sparked by a New Jersey teacher frustrated by her students' disinterest in reading. The event comes at a time of serious concern over literacy. A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 25 to 40 percent of students (depending on grade level) couldn't perform at a basic reading level. These numbers were better than those recorded in the 1994 study.

"We've regained some lost ground, but there's still a long way to go," says Ms. Lange. She calls the reason for such a movement a "no-brainer." "Kids can't get very far without knowing how to read."

Schools, libraries, and volunteer groups nationwide will be hosting a variety of activities today. In addition to Cat visits and green egg breakfasts, other activities include high-schoolers reading to grade-school kids, book swaps, book bingo, assemblies, reading awards, and pajama parties.

In only its second year, the event has attracted a host of celebrities (like Cal Ripken Jr. and James Earl Jones) and lawmakers. It's an easy cause to rally around, says Bill Guy, a representative from the Massachusetts Teacher's Association. "It's non-controversial and a win-win situation for everybody," he says. "Who can be against encouraging children to read?"

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