Mid-South Book Festival leads children to path of lifetime reading

Photo by William Deshazer

Photo by William Deshazer

My kids talk. A lot. But a large and healthy vocabulary is a gift all parents should give their children. At least that’s what I keep telling myself whenever I can get a word in edgewise.

The seed to a garden of so many words and sentences and paragraphs is found in a book. My children have outgrown “Goodnight Moon” and “Knuffle Bunny” and “One Fish, Two Fish,” and the truth is, I miss them sometimes. Reading to my kids gave something to both of us; it’s a give and take of knowledge and language, but also of bonding and irreplaceable memories. I could probably recite “Goodnight Moon” from memory if they’d ask, but they aren’t asking anymore; they’re too old for that “great green room.”

There are plenty of ways to keep our kids reading even once they’ve passed the age of tuck-ins at bedtime. There is school, of course, and read-a-thons. There are books that are made into films to capture their interest and, hopefully, make them curious for the source material. There are wizards and castles and magic tree houses. There are lions, witches and wardrobes.

And there is the library. I defy any child to walk through the pastel forest that is the Children’s Department entryway of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, and not be drawn to the stained-glass house, the low-to-the-ground tables and the rows upon rows of mind-opening books.

Kids, this department is your great green room that will set you on a course of lifetime reading.

I learned the other day of a policy I hadn’t previously known. It seems that if your child has late fines in the Memphis Public Library system, he or she can go in and read for a preset amount of time in the presence of a librarian and that fine, or portions of that fine, will be dismissed.

Had I known about it over the course of the last 16 years with four kids, it could have saved me tens of dollars in nickel late fees.

What a wonderful policy, though. It teaches children that knowledge is more valuable than money.

Another way to interest children in the world of literature happens this weekend. It’s Literacy Mid-South’s first Mid-South Book Festival taking place from Thursday to Sunday. Saturday afternoon at Memphis Botanic Garden, there will be an outside children’s area with costumed characters, sidewalk chalk for writing haikus, a play by ShoWagon of Theatre Memphis, and Chef Dough Dough (Dolores Grisanti Katsotis) will give a cooking demonstration from her children’s cookbook.

There is plenty for adult readers, too, of course, and I’ll be moderating a Q&A session Saturday morning with Courtney Miller Santo, local author of “Three Story House” and “The Roots of the Olive Tree.”

Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South, warns that “If a child isn’t proficient in reading by the third grade, there’s a good chance that we’ve lost him forever. And you can’t rely solely on the school system to do that, that has to start at home.”

My passion for reading began early through trips with my mother to the public library when it was at Peabody and McLean in Midtown. That interest and curiosity is probably the greatest gift she ever gave me.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at richardalley.com. Become a fan of “Because I Said So” on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.

More information on the Mid-South Book Festival at midsouthbookfest.org.
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A Place To Stay

Victoria Ford, a child of the Memphis political dynasty, survived her parents’ disgrace to stand on a stage in Carnegie Hall and accept a national writing award

Feature profile for Chapter 16 (an online journal about books and writers, sponsored by Humanities Tennessee)

June 29, 2011

“You may not understand this now, but she isn’t coming back. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Day after that. And no, she hasn’t left anything behind—a sticky note on the refrigerator door or a quick message for the answering machine, her voice a distant echo calling your name and mine. Nothing.”

So begins the award-winning essay “To a Restless Little Brother Calling for Mama in His Sleep,” one of the five essays that last month helped Victoria Ford, eighteen, win a national Scholastic Art and Writing Award—and a $10,000 college scholarship. Past winners of the prestigious award include Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, and Truman Capote. For Ford, the awards ceremony, held May 31 in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, was a moment to remember, one that surely marks the beginning of a life of creativity and success.

Victoria’s last name might not be so well known as the literary giants who took home the Scholastic prize years ago, but it already carries a kind of notoriety in her hometown of Memphis. Harold Ford Sr., the first African-American Tennessean elected to Congress since Reconstruction, was her uncle. Harold Ford Jr., now retired from Congress, is her cousin. Other family members have been elected to the city council, the county commission, and the school board in Memphis. Victoria’s father, John Ford, was a state senator for three decades, another cog in the familial political machine.

Among young African Americans growing up in Memphis, Victoria’s story is far from typical. Memphis is a city with higher-than-average rates of poverty, drug use, single-parent homes, and criminal recidivism, but Victoria grew up in a two-story brick home with a mother and father. She attended an above-average city school … (read more)


A Collection Large and Full of Treasures

Feature story for the Rhodes Magazine

Summer 2011

As moves go, it wasn′t such a great distance. Only a little over two miles to be exact, from the study of a turreted, fairy-tale-like house on East Parkway to the Gothic, shady campus on North Parkway. Nevertheless, the acquisition by Rhodes College of the Shelby Foote Collection of writings, papers, hand-drawn maps, photos and memorabilia is such that it will take researchers and students on a journey through decades worth of history, stories and lessons.

The collection is a major gain for the college. On a rainy March morning in the warm confines of the Paul Barret Jr. Library, dignitaries and notables gathered to see and speak about the significance of the Foote collection to the worlds of literature, research, history and Rhodes itself.

As President Bill Troutt said that morning, the acquisition of the Foote collection “is a very special moment in the life of our college.”

Though many of the items had been on loan for years to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there was never much doubt that Foote’s ties to Rhodes were strong, as he received an honorary degree in 1982 and lectured on campus in 1988 and 1991.

When son Huger Foote set out to find a permanent home for his father’s vast collection of papers and books, he kept the elder Foote’s wishes and beliefs close to heart. Huger says of his task: “With that spirit in mind, things were somewhat simplified. At any juncture, I only needed to ask, ‘What would my father have wanted?’ and follow that course … It was important to me that the entire collection be kept intact and preserved in its full integrity to inspire and, I think, amaze this and future generations of scholars. Rhodes shares this vision.” … (read more)