read across america

I was asked to write a letter to a class of first graders in Michigan in celebration of Read Across America. The letter went off yesterday, and I thought I’d put up the text here for anybody who might want to use it for the same purpose. Please let me know if you pass it on.

Dear Mrs. Killinger and First Graders,

When I was in first grade (at Saint Benedict’s in Chicago), I wanted to be

Dr. Seuss when I grew up, and here’s the reason why: he wrote such good stories. They made me laugh and they made me think. My favorite was (and still is) Green Eggs and Ham.

A few years ago at the farmers’ market we came across a farmer selling green eggs. You think I’m joking, but it’s true. Araucana hens lay eggs that are green or blue or sometimes blue-green. Or green-blue. And they are delicious. Do you think maybe Dr. Seuss had a few Araucana hens in his backyard? Once in a while we have green eggs and ham, and I think of him.

So there you are, celebrating the Read Across America program, and I’m supposed to tell you how reading has been important in my life. I’ve already told you about green eggs, but there are other important things, too.

First of all, reading has been a big help in tricky situations. When I drove from Ann Arbor, Michigan (where I used to live) to Bellingham, Washington (where I live now), the road signs kept me from ending up in Toledo or (imagine!) Walla Walla. When I shop for food I can read the list of ingredients to be sure what I’m buying is a real honest-to-gosh banana, and not a clever imposter banana (or a giant green bean) hiding under a very convincing peel. In the middle of the night if I wake up and realize that I have forgotten the capital of Chile in South America or the name of the first American woman in space, I can get out of bed and go look at an atlas or a dictionary or a history book. (Unless of course the book I need is already in my bed. There are a lot of them. Some people like pillows, I like books.)

But most of all, reading has always been important to me because I like stories, and one  way that stories get told (though not the only way) is by writing them down for other people to read. I write stories about people who lived a long time ago. The book I’m writing now is about families who got caught up in the War of 1812. (I bet you haven’t heard of that war yet. Unfortunately there are far too many wars to know about.)

To be a good storyteller, you have to learn to really appreciate the stories other people have to tell. So I spend a lot of time reading. I read stories and histories. You might wonder if there’s really a difference — I think the answer is no, but your teacher might have a different opinion.) I read diaries and atlases and old newspapers. And then I write.

Reading is part of what I do for a living. I am a very fortunate person, and so are you, every time you pick up a book.

Best of luck to each and every one of you. You’ll go far.

Sincerely yours,

Sara Donati

PS In case you were getting ready to write and tell me the answers, I looked them up yet again: the capital of Chile is called Santiago – and northern Chile, believe it or not, is where Araucana chickens were first discovered. In 1983 Sally Kristen Ride was the first American woman to walk in space, but as far as I know she has no chickens, has never been to Chile, and has never even tasted green eggs and ham.

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