Book smart

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Apr. 12—Dolly Parton is very right about two things. Number one: Jolene is a flaming-locked harlot who has no business trying to steal Dolly's man. And number two: All children deserve to have access to books and to experience the joys and benefits of reading.

Dolly was born in a one-room cabin near a town called Sevierville, Tennessee, a tiny pocket of a place nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains. Her father was a farmer and didn't learn to read or write as a child.

Inspired by the hardships of an impoverished childhood and a father who never learned his ABCs, Dolly founded her Imagination Library, which, according to the organization's website, has to date provided more than 232 million books to young readers across the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and Ireland.

That's a lot of books.

A key takeaway for me from my short stint at the New Mexico Public Education Department was this: Literacy isn't just something we deserve, like having access to art museums or a CVS pharmacy on every corner. Literacy, like access to a quality, equitable education, is a basic human right.

That concept completely changed my thinking. People like Dolly's dad and others who grow up in extreme poverty or in areas or cultures that don't have access to educational resources are being denied a basic human right. That is, the right to be able to access language and communication at its most basic, written form.

As we often find out, human rights aren't always guaranteed and are often taken for granted. My childhood classrooms had summer reading competitions (thank you, Mrs. Raitt), hundreds of Scholastic book fairs (where I discovered my first Henry Huggins book by Beverly Cleary), and spelling bees (won one in the fourth grade, thankyaverymuch). Each public school I attended housed that special space, second only to the cafeteria as every student's favorite place, that also served as the social nucleus for readings, meetings, and study halls: the inimitable school library. In subsequent eras of education funding cutbacks, the schools my two children attended in Southern California didn't always have a library (cue the foreboding soundtrack).

It's easy to forget there are children in our communities, our state, our nation, and our globe who don't have family members to read them Harry Potter in their best British accent and have never laid eyes on the charming illustrations of Beatrix Potter telling the tale of Peter Rabbit. Some may never know that distinct smell of ink on paper or the crack of a fresh book's spine.

Dolly, and other book lovers like her, are working to solve those barriers to literacy through a variety of means, one of which is the National Endowment of the Arts Big Read. The goal of that initiative is to remind us that when we come together to talk about a book or an author or a theme, we're celebrating the art of reading and building a community that supports writers and readers and knowledge.

Thankfully, Santa Fe's libraries check in big for the NEA Big Read (see Page 14), which is known locally as Santa Fe Reads. Participating entities across the U.S. make book selections for this big ol' book club to read and discuss; Santa Fe's pick this year is Circe by Madeline Miller. And because Santa Fe is an arts town that just has to art, those book-focused events will also include artist talks and concerts.

Not all of us are joiners, so even if you don't participate, you can just log it as a reminder of how great books and reading are and as a means to spread the word on words.

Now all we have to do is solve that Jolene problem.