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It's a book club, but no one's got the latest bestseller here. At Motheread, the path to parent and child bonding starts with . . . : A Good Read


" '!Caramba!' grito la mama osa," squeals a young mother, her eyes saucer-wide. Adding a shiver of trepidation to a thin and reedy voice, she attempts to convey the mama bear's fury. But a modest giggle escapes--a quick gush of steam--giving the lie to her fear.

Laughter comes not from a circle of children, sitting legs crossed beneath them, but from a gathering of a dozen mothers--some first-timers, some veterans--who meet once a week at Pacoima Elementary School, their legs pressed beneath low wooden tables, their noses stuck in shared copies of James Marshall's picture-book version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

This is Motheread, a reading group of a different stripe. You won't spot the new Pat Conroy or John Saul on its list of recommended titles, but you're liable to find the participants just as engaged or opinionated about character motivations and plot development, story structure or the premise's ultimate believability.

Not a literacy workshop focusing on rudiments of language and usage, Motheread is a bilingual, intergenerational reading program stressing execution and dramatic delivery. What began as a project to help incarcerated mothers build nurturing relationships with their children has since expanded to serve the general population. And as families become prisoners of their own routines--packed-tight schedules, second jobs and generation gaps that yawn into chasms impossible to measure--the program provides at least one reliable tool to chip away at the walls that have grown up around parent and child.

These sessions provide far more than reading skills. They construct, where at times there was none, a foundation for better communication. The goal is to build not just reading prowess, but better parenting skills.


Founded in North Carolina by Nancye Gaj in 1987, Motheread made its trek to the West Coast in 1992.

"The California Council for the Humanities wanted in some way to participate after the civil unrest," explains Khisna Griffin, who has been Motheread's L.A. coordinator since 1993. "They wanted some vehicle that would serve the areas that were most dramatically affected. And they were concerned that CCH didn't reach certain parts of the city like South-Central or certain areas in the Valley with their usual offerings--film and discussion groups."

In its North Carolina incarnation, imprisoned mothers met in groups to read to each other and their offspring. They wrote and recorded their own stories so the children could return home with a small souvenir of their time together.

The California offshoot uses a similar framework, but aims to help working mothers and fathers to better structure their stray hours of quality time. With a target group between the ages of 2 and 11, the program grooms group leaders, who in turn groom mothers, who in turn groom their children.

"We train the parent-educator," says Griffin, who works on a budget of $120,000 (which includes the cost of books, salaries and orientation sessions). "The goal is to understand the importance of quiet time, reading time, turning the TV off--not just tell them to do it, but to tell them how ."

Parents connect with Motheread through Los Angeles County-based social service agencies that provide parenting programs, including Watts Counseling & Learning Center, El Nido Family Centers, Kaiser Permanente's Educational Outreach in Baldwin Park, Good Beginnings and the Junior League of Pasadena.

El Nido Family Centers was the first pilot partner, and has been the most successful in lining up curious mothers and group leaders. Motheread provided an essential second step for mothers completing parenting classes who felt they were just getting warmed up.

"They would have so many enthusiastic people, so they didn't want to turn them away if they wanted more. Motheread wasn't a Part Two, but a way to keep the group together," Griffin says.

Sponsored by the CCH, Motheread also receives support from the Norton Family Fund, Weingart Foundation, Ralph M. Parsons and California Community Foundation, among others. And with a schedule of classes that run for 10 weeks, in 1 1/2- to two-hour sessions, Griffin has been able to set up a geographically ambitious program staffed by one full-timer (herself), with 17 active group leaders who travel the region.


The goal is clear cut. Through underscoring the power in the simple act of sharing words and reveling in the closeness that comes with quietude, Motheread group leaders spend a good portion of their sessions teaching a parent just that--how to parent. How to make the most of small portions of time they have together at the end or beginning of a day.

With a book list that contains nearly 100 titles--all multicultural, all widely available--the emphasis here is on moving the story beyond the page, bringing the two-dimensional not simply to life but to have the world of the story fully occupy the room. Creating a world that the child and parent can explore together.

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