I had several bookish friends growing up (Big surprise, I know), it was never just me sitting alone in a corner reading—not unless I wanted it to be. When we weren’t outside playing or composing soap operas with our dolls and My Little Ponies, we’d be draped across one another like puppies on the floor or on my bed; have staged a takeover of a table in the library, propping our elbows up on our backpacks to achieve the most comfortable reading position; or be smashed together in the bus seats, tuning out the world with words. When we were done with this book or that, we’d trade, discuss or recommend something else. Series titles, stand alone, historical, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary: it didn’t matter. We read widely and eclectically. We read because we could. Because in books you can be anyone—anything—and not have to worry about limitations.
I wish that my teachers had done more with that, shown us what opportunities were out there by telling us where to try and submit writing and teaching us the finer arts of book discussion at a younger age. Not that they were bad by any means, in fact, comparatively speaking I got a better education than my brother did despite there only being four years between us. My teachers did what they could, but with each successive year trying to make up for the failings of the last they were fighting an uphill battle as curriculum requirements, teaching styles and classroom sizes changed. While I was lucky in that I came into grade school knowing how to read—all the children from my co-op kindergarten did—I never would have become the reader I am today without the help of Miss Cleo.
Cleo volunteered for our grade school, and in my mind I always see her as this very grandmotherly woman. I have no idea if she’d had children come up through our school, or if she was a retired teacher looking for something to do, but she believed in education and the power of reading. Looking back on those years, I can’t think of a time that she wasn’t in the classroom, reading to us or with us in individual or small group sessions. She helped us build our vocabularies and ran through our flash cards. She gave us the one on one attention that we needed as we struggled over how to sound out the big words and divine their meaning through context. She loved reading, teaching, and most importantly us, which came through in every action and word. There were no “can’ts” with Miss Cleo, just “coulds” and “woulds” because all we had to do was try hard enough.
I wonder if she knew how many lives she helped and changed. I like to think she did. The volunteer award for the district was created in her honor and to this day bears her name. Because if you’re going to win that award, you’d better measure up to the standards Miss Cleo set.
I think that readergirlz, a website dedicated to celebrating Young Adult books and strong female characters and encouraging discussion with other teenage girls, would be a site that Miss Cleo would be proud to recommend. Justina Chen Headley, Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, and Lorie Ann Grover have a created a website for teen girls to “encourage teen girls to read and reach out with community service projects related to each featured novel. As well, readergirlz will host MySpace discussions with each book's author, include author interviews, and provide book party ideas, including playlists, menus, and decorations.” Each month will also have a topic—this month’s being Tolerance—and girls are encouraged to visit the links provided to learn more about what they can do to help improve their own social and physical environment.
Reading is not a solitary activity, it never has been. As soon as your laughter at a phrase or joke causes someone to ask what’s so funny or you open your mouth to tell your sister/brother/mother/father/friend about this plot or that, you’ve left the solitary act of reading words on a page behind. This need to discuss, to share creates a group activity, and is why we’ve seen the proliferation of reader blogs and sites. It’s why the entire country can go gah-gah over a book whose plot and writing—while not complex—made people feel smart and gave them something in common to talk about on the train or in the office. Reading, we’re discovering once again, is fun.
And, gosh darn it, people like it!
And they like to talk about it, finding different perspectives and thoughts. They like that they don’t necessarily have to be an expert in theory or be able to tell the difference between a Post-Modern piece and a Romantic one. They like that they can learn information while not feeling like it’s being jammed down their throats in an academic setting.
I have high hopes for readergirlz. I want to see this work and allow young women to connect across racial, religious and borderlines and celebrate their love of reading. I want to see them grow the idea and expand by offering girls links to where they can try submitting their own writing, providing a little how-to on creating your own ‘zine, and highlighting girls who personify the readergirlz ideal when these authors meet them during tours.
So on this most Suessical day, I think it’s only right to look forward to the places these woman will go and the girls they’ll take with them. I’m sure that the spirit of Miss Cleo will be along for the ride.