NEW YORK — There is a cheerful spirit to the posters, buttons and bookmarks springing up in libraries, schools and bookstores around the country. But the purpose behind these displays, and the workshops, read-ins and author appearances that accompany them is far from frivolous. This is the Year of the Young Reader, a campaign launched jointly by the Center for the Book and the Children's Literature Center in the Library of Congress, and supported resoundingly by book publishers, booksellers, educators and librarians. The effort is intended, said John Cole at the Center for the Book in Washington, "to focus attention on the importance of getting young people familiar with books and reading at the earliest age."
"Libraries, public schools, private schools, day care centers, bookstores--anybody that has anything to do with children or reading can pick up the ball and run with it," Janie Coats, of the Children's Literature Center, said.
Inspired by the successful 1987 Year of the Reader program, the young reader project seizes also on a growing awareness of the literacy problems faced by many young Americans. A high school diploma is no guarantee of reading skills, since in some areas, nearly half a graduating class may be borderline illiterate. One study cited by the Library of Congress found that fewer than half of the 17-year-olds surveyed could comfortably read a newspaper. Cutbacks in library funding that have forced some libraries to reduce hours or days of operation as well as after-school projects have caused additional alarm. Many educators worry that though young people can read, they simply choose not to.
"Everybody assumes that kids today are learning to read," said Betty Takeuchi, a co-founder of the Southern California Project for the Year of the Young Reader, "and they're not."
Many of the YYR activities are promotional: public service announcements featuring actor LeVar Burton acting as "host/spokesperson," for example. There are "camera-ready" logos with the slogan, "Give Us Books, Give Us Wings." And the Library of Congress has issued kid-size, four-color "Readin' and Rollin' " T-shirts.
Public and private sectors are working together, however, to ensure that the campaign has substance as well as pizazz. "There's really good stuff happening all over the country," Cole said. In Florida, for example, newborn babies in Dade County leave the hospital with YYR book packs that include a read-along guide, an audiotape for the baby and tiny "Love Me, Read to Me" T-shirts for the budding bibliophile.
In Southern California, two dozen authors and illustrators of children's books will gather at a school in San Gabriel in May as one of at least 10 major public events planned in conjunction with the Year of the Young Reader. Takeuchi, the owner of the San Marino Toy and Book Co. and president of the Assn. of Booksellers for Children, said another element of the YYR campaign in Southern California would feature members of the Dodgers appearing in spot television announcements to describe their favorite reading material as children.
With many of the principals on the Southern California committee coming from the educational management community, Takeuchi said other projects would focus on reading skills for homeless children, pregnant teen-agers and gang members.
In San Francisco, a daylong multimedia extravaganza to kick off the YYR effort there nearly overwhelmed its organizers with its success. Only 200 people had been expected. For lack of space, YYR committee members reluctantly had to cut off admission tickets at 500.
In Takeuchi's view, one of the long-term benefits of the project has been the linking of so many aspects of the children's book community. "We've brought together all these different groups," she said. "Usually we don't all work together like this."
She said the enthusiasm had grown so high that participants have already agreed that the Year of the Young Reader will not be a one-shot event. "This will be a model year," Takeuchi said. "This will continue." Some kind of a public document, a "manifesto," as Takeuchi called it, will be issued at the end of the year, she said, outlining how the lessons from this Year of the Young Reader can be extended.
"Every year can be the Year of the Young Reader," Takeuchi said.
Here in New York, meanwhile, Scholastic Books would no doubt be thrilled to extend the YYR program indefinitely, provided it can continue to issue the same YYR bookmark. Scholastic art director Carol Gildar said the publisher nearly ran into serious problems when it invited employees to bring their kids in to pose for an illustration of happy little kids, happily reading. Gildar's one stipulation was that the kids had to be able to sit up.