ONCE upon a time, a nine-year-old girl and her father set out to read together for 100 nights in a row. And when they reached that milestone, they decided to keep going. Their endeavour to spend a small part of each day reading was called "The Streak", and it did not stop until 3,218 nights later when the little girl turned 18 and went off to college.
Night after night they read despite sometimes heartbreaking circumstances, turmoil and inconveniences. It took an exquisite reader and a book lover to complete this remarkable journey. And by documenting that journey in this charming debut, the little girl, now in her 20s, tells the story of her extraordinary relationship with her father in a childhood that was not the happiest her mother walked out on the family and her older sister couldn't leave quickly enough. It is a childhood filled with poignancy sweetened by the joy of reading.
Surrounded by books and raised by a school librarian passionate about reading aloud to students, Alice Ozma is that little girl. The pen name she chose for herself gives an inkling of her ties to the literary world: "Alice" is for Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, and "Ozma" is for Princess Ozma from L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz.
Yet, this is not a book about books. There are no in-depth discussions of any title, nor are there musings over a specific character or plot. Rather, it is a book about love, without which no living and breathing sentient creature can survive. It is about those memorable moments we all experience while growing up. It is about remembering reading Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream when your older sister practically runs to college because she's so impatient to leave the family, or remembering what it felt like to be listening tearfully to your dad who had just wounded your heart. It is also about growth, change, and triumph as well as the fear and hope lying underneath each of these moments. It is about everything in life because reading never is, and never can be, just about characters and plots. Reading is about life, for it is life that we read about.
While tackling such growing pains as loneliness, studies and the death of a pet, Ozma sprinkles on the joy of reading that awaits her at the end of each day. She writes about how, on one occasion, despite his fever and sore throat, the father reads on. The words rolled off his tongue in a hypnotic way and his hollow whisper when sounding out a children's book was more beautiful than the most robust rendition of Shakespeare's plays.
Together, father and daughter became fearless and invincible, and as they were reading and overcoming the challenges of keeping the streak going, they were also solving daily problems. "This will get better," Alice tells her knees reassuringly in one of the chapters, for there was no one else to tell that to.
Ozma's stories do not stir the reader; yet, they do steer us to search for our own growing pains, and leave a peace and comfort that faintly emanate from the pages to linger on our fingertips. Written in simple and unpolished prose that flashes enough brilliance to make it a charming read, the book is a fine and earnest memoir though it could have been an awe-striking debut if Ozma had probed deeper into the dark corners of her heart as well as those of her father's. Only in the last couple of chapters does she try venturing into the heart of an ageing man forced to retire and failing to find new purpose. But it is a little too late, as many of her other stories had already swept past, unregistered. Without that boldness to reach further than the usual heartbreaks, Ozma's episodic recollections risk becoming irrelevant vignettes except that the fascinating, intriguing, recurring reading streak handily retains our attention.
The little girl who once upon a time listened to her father reading aloud may not be as exciting a writer as her father was a storyteller, and her book may not have a climax, yet, her message comes across loud and sound: If a parent does something aspirational, the child will follow suit. If a parent shows compassion, understanding, patience and love, the child will do the same.
That parent is Ozma's father, Jim Brozina, who continues to read aloud, though now he does so to the people in an old folks' home. And Ozma has turned out to be an exceptional woman, continuing the reading streak in a way by writing this memoir that reminds all parents about the importance of books, of reading, and of spending quality time with their children.
"I am terribly afraid of falling myself," said the Cowardly Lion, "but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it. So get on my back and we will make the attempt." The quote from Baum's Wizard Of Oz opens The Reading Promise's first chapter, which recounts Day One of the reading streak. If you are not in the habit of reading to your child, let it open the first chapter that you read aloud to him or her today.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
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