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HEARTS OF THE CITY

Many Happy Endings : Library 'Grandparents' Teach Children Joys of Reading

September 11, 1996|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monday is Grandpa Fred's day. Wednesday is Grandma Margie's. Thursday belongs to Grandma Jeannette, and if it's Friday, it must be Grandma Marian.

Each is seated on a chair too small, holding books with large print and short words. Every week they come, gray-haired apostles of reading eager for youthful converts in the children's section of the city library in Chinatown.

All four are volunteers in the Los Angeles Public Library system's "Grandparents and Books" program, which brings older people into city libraries to regularly read aloud to grade school students.

Started in 1989, the program is active in almost all library branches, and has given rise to more than 100 similar efforts across the state.

It has taken particular hold in the Chinatown branch, a small, intimate library that very much reflects the community it serves. Next door is an elementary school, from which a stream of youngsters comes after classes.

Even during the summer, small groups of children cluster around the elders for reading and craft sessions, urgently requesting this drawing or that book and sometimes insisting that they be allowed to read.

"Oooh, she lives in a shoe--the shoe's stinky," Joanna Deng, 7, said as she made a face and breezed through the story of the old woman who lived in an oversized piece of footwear.

On a recent Friday, Joanna was Marian Leng's most ardent student. She listened to Leng, read to her and with her, digesting one familiar nursery tale after another.

"My dad likes to read books, so I like to read," Joanna said, expressing disdain for television.

Leng, 69, has been a library volunteer for seven years. On Saturdays, she teaches conversational English to adults, and two years ago, when she retired from nursing, she joined the children's reading-aloud program.

"I have a very good feeling when I go home on Friday and Saturday," said Leng, who grew up in the neighborhood, although she now lives elsewhere in Los Angeles. "I'm getting back my culture too."

It was Leng who introduced another "grandparent," Fred Gong, to the library. Like Leng, he serves double duty as an adult language tutor and children's reader.

"Like most men, I'm afraid of kids," Gong, 73, said unconvincingly. "I tell people this is a new challenge, a new venture."

*

He also has a skill that children value. With a few clever turns of the pencil, the retired commercial artist can sketch all manner of creatures.

"This is my standard princess," he remarked as he dashed off a young woman with tiara and gown during a recent session in the children's section.

Surely, it was just the thing for the 5-year-old sitting at his table.

He passed it to her. She looked it over. Then she whispered in her older sister's ear.

"She wanted a cat," the sister said. Gong complied.

Another little girl, an art critic in the making, glanced at the dog illustration she had requested. "That's not a dog. That's a fox," she said.

"They're related," Gong retorted good-humoredly.

*

Gong and Leng are among about 500 "grandparents"--all in their 50s or older--who have participated systemwide in the read-aloud program since its inception.

Held in the afternoon, the readings are particularly aimed at latchkey children whose working parents do not get home until hours after school ends for the day.

"We just love the idea that we can fill in that gap in such a fruitful way," said Susan Patron, senior children's librarian for the Los Angeles system.

The average volunteer stays in the program about a year, Patron said. But the Chinatown branch is an exception.

Two of the four regulars, Margie Lew, 74, and Jeannette Young, are now in their sixth year.

"They are very committed to this community," Chinatown branch librarian Carol Duan said of her four "grandparents."

"They love children. They love books. It sounds so cliched, but it's true."

*

The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on Grandparents and Books, a program in which adult volunteers 50 or older spend afternoons reading literature to grade-school children at Los Angeles Public Library branches across the city. For more information, call (213) 228-7487.

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