From time to time I will post excerpts from my books by way of sharing ideas or anecdotes you might enjoy. Some years ago I wrote the following letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle:
In an era of decreasing commitment to literacy–how else to explain the failure of the state, for example, to adequately fund the libraries?–it is no surprise that most students, too, are bypassing books.
Instead they look elsewhere for information, for entertainment, for experience. I would like to invite you to write to my high school students about your experiences with books, perhaps telling them what role books and literature have played in your life.
I would be just as interested in hearing from the six-year-old about her favorite book as the sixty-year-old whose life was changed by the reading of a book. Send your letters to me at Burlingame High School. Thank you, and keep reading.
My students and I received over 1000 pages of letters. They poured in from cattle ranchers, lawyers, murderers, nuns, third graders, and, as this letter shows, students reflecting on their childhood in China:
“How has reading changed my life?” My memory runs back to when I was seven years old. “Ding Dong!” My dad finally came home.
It was my birthday party. I was waiting for him the whole day. A week ago, he had told me that he would give me a big surprise on my birthday party. “What will it be? It must be that red skirt I saw in the shopping center!” I’ve looked forward this moment for a week that I was almost impatient.
I immediately ran over to him. He was very excited. There was a careful wrapped box in his hand. “Oh, my dear red skirt. I finally have you.” My heart was pumping. Without my dad’s consent, I took over the box.
“Oh, no!” My heart was sinking when I opened the box. It was not the pretty skirt I’d longed for so long. It was a BOOK! I was like falling down from the top of the world. “No, I never want the stupid book. Where is my dress?” I cried out. Tears were filled in my eyes. I’ve waited for a week for the useless book. I felt I’ve been cheated. How can he give me the cheap, non-sense book for my birthday gift? He didn’t like me at all. I would never read it.
At night, I can’t fall asleep. Looking at the big book, my anger was running inside me. It had ruined my party. Why did dad lie to me and said it was a surprise to me? Suddenly I grew curiously: “what is the book about? Is it so evil that I hate it and want to tear it apart?” I opened the book—Chinese and Foreign stories—and read my first real story in my life.
There was a little virtuous duck. It’s so ugly that nobody liked it. It didn’t have any friends. Every animal around the lake laughed at her wherever she went: “Look at this little duck. Get away from her.” Comparing to her, her sister was as pretty as a princess. Wherever she was, there were always friends around her. They would say: “Come here, dear. Come in my house.” One day, they were playing around the lake. Suddenly, a little chick fell into the lake. He shouted “Beauty, Save me.” The pretty duck shook her head selfishly: “Why should I save you. I can’t get anything.” The ugly duck just passed by. It saw what happened and jumped in the water bravely without a word. It saved the chick. From then on, everyone liked to play with warm-hearted ugly duck. The story ends with a motto, which I remembered most– “It’s the inside that counts the most.”
I was ashamed when I finished reading it. I felt I was like one of the animals that only look at the outside of the things, but ignore what they really are. I liked the red skirt because it was pretty. But pretty outfit can’t cover my inside. Only the knowledge can fill my mind. And reading is one way to get the knowledge.
I moved on to the next story…I was deeply attracted. I can’t put the book down anymore. I kept reading. I read during the break of the class. I read as soon I got home. Soon, I had a habit—I can’t go to sleep unless I read some pages. Like what my mom said, “I fell in love with reading.”
I fell deeply in love with the beautiful earth when I read “our home–earth.” I decided to preserve the earth like the guards who fight against bad people destroying the earth. I cried for Cinderella when she was tortured by her wry sisters. And I can’t stop laughing at funny action of the little bear when it danced.
I read, and I learned. My mind was not empty with only pretty dress anymore. I was filled by books and knowledge. I began to understand what is true beauty, and to realize our burden as the residents on earth. I never felt I was alone and boring. I have books—my dearest friend with me.
As I grew up, my knowledge grew. I had regretted what I did wrong when I was young. But I never regretted to pick up the book on my birthday night. It’s that moment I began to open the door lying between me and wonderful world, people and knowledge. It’s reading that helps me find my true self and our value of living. I am still reading. When I got home after a day’s tire work, my first hope is to lie down on the sofa, and read a book a while. It’s the only time I can forget all the unhappiness. At that time, my book and I are the only two existing on earth. Every time when my dad asks me what I want most for my birthday present, I say it out without thinking: “I want books. I want to read.”
Click here if you want to learn more about I Hear America Reading: Why We Read • What We Read.