A good book is better than string beans and ham hocks and corn bread, better than a square-cut emerald, better than a crystal-cut flacon of the perfumes of Araby, the large bath size. Books are in a class with friends and dogs and better than a good Dunn & Bradstreet rating.
That is why I am such an enthusiastic supporter of an organization called Reading Is Fundamental, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week. It is run by volunteers who distribute books to school kids all over the country. In this area, third-grade children is all RIF can afford. They have a plain little brochure that tells what they do, no glossy paper, no four-color pictures.
They sustain the organization with help from grants and from small contributions and with some money from a congressional committee. The organization is endorsed roundly by the Girl Scouts, Campfire, National Urban League, American Library Assn., National Catholic Educational Assn. and every U.S. commissioner of education since the organization was founded.
They need more money all the time. Here's what they do: They buy paperback children's books, and publishers often help with discounts. The members go to inner-city schools at regular intervals and tell stories to the children. This is to whet their appetites. Then all of the books are spread out on a table and each child is allowed to choose one to keep. Forever for his very own.
They encourage the children to share their books and pass them around to friends. My friend Marva Shearer is a vice president of RIF, and through her I met a number of members who work on the distributions. The members are as individual as books, each one with her own special contribution to make.
Over and over the members said, "There is so much sweetness and love in these children, such gratitude."
Tess Gross said that after telling a story, a little boy came up to her and gave her a nickel, saying, "Here. I want you to have this. Go and buy a book for me."
Three distributions a year to third-graders in one school add up to 900 books. At $1 a book that's nearly $1,000 for one distribution in one school. A big sixth-grader came up to Tess and said, "Hello, I remember you from third grade. I still have the book you gave me. I still love it."
Sylvia Ziskind, a vice president, said that one child wrote her a letter saying, "I love you so much I want to come and live with you."
After she told a story, one child came up and hugged and kissed her. Then the entire class stood in line to hug her.
"They are so loving," Sylvia said.
"Eight children at a time are allowed at the table. The schoolroom becomes absolutely still. We give each child a bookmark to go with his book and a bookplate with the RIF logo on it, and a line to write his name, just below a line reading 'This is my book,' " Sylvia said.
"The sweetest sound I have ever heard is the quiet little murmur as they look inside their books. Then they thank you so effusively."
Here are some sentences of the letters from hundreds written to the RIF members:
"I now have a book collection. When I grow up, I will tell stories part time, like you. Cuz I want to be nice like you."
"I hope some day you can go to Korea and have a good time."
"I wish you would never leave us. I will think about you during my lifetime."
"I'd like to read the book you gave me and to learn English too. When I learn English better I will talk better for you."
"I am the one who is black. Do you remember me? I surely like you a lot." That was from a little girl anyone would remember with love.
"Guess what. My parents read my book, too. I will miss you very much."
"I love your books, even the ones I can't read. I wish I had something else to send you because you are really nice but I don't have anything to send you."
"It's not every day someone sends you a book. I think it was really nice to send a kid a book."
"I enjoyed the opportunity of being able to learn as well as laugh. Jason."
And here's an example of what sharing does. "The book you gave me was 'Vicki and the Brown Mare' and it was exciting and happy and sad. My friend read the book to his friend and I read part of the story to my little sister. My other sister took it to junior high school."
The books will lead kids down paths they may follow all their lives. "I chose a book about energy. I picked this book because I am interested in electricity."
She's a NASA candidate, that one, and she'll make it, too.
"If you can come again, we can do things together but if not I still love you."
The main office of RIF is at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Here it is at the California Museum of Science and Industry, 700 State Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90037.
A little money or a lot, it will put the scruffy feet of these third-graders on the magic road to reading. Maybe send the little girl to Caltech so she can find out more about electricity. Give old Jason a chance to laugh and to learn.
If you can't send money, be like the children. Read this to your brother or let your friend read it. And a few more kids can have a book of their very own with their names in them with bookplates that say, "This book belongs to me."
Gazelle Luna says it best. "Dear friends, I enjoy your books. I like to read. When I grow up maybe I'll be like you. I'll always remember you. The pictures are beautiful in my book and you're my best friend of all."
Me, I want to hear Tess Gross tell the story about the North Wind.