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Importance of Reading To Children

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First Lady

National Association of American Publishers
Address by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
On the Importance of Reading to Children

The Mayflower Hotel
Washington, D.C.
March 18, 1999


Thank you very much. Thank you, Brian, for that generous introduction. But it is I who should thank all of you for the work that you have done and that we have done together. I am delighted to be surrounded by so many passionate advocates for books and reading. And I want to thank you for the support that you give through your work and through your advocacy on behalf of literacy.

I also want to thank my friend, Pat Schroeder, for inviting me here today. I always love being around Pat. Her tremendous energy, her commitment, the sheer joy she brings to everything she does is always an inspiration to me.

I also want to thank you and join you in saluting National Public Radio for all that NPR has done over the years to promote the love of reading and the love of books. I know that we have in this crowd, I'm told, some of the great personalities of NPR. And I want to thank all of them. I don't know if Susan Stamberg is here, or Linda Wertheimer, Bob Edwards, Scott Simon or Diane Rehm and some of my other favorites. But I want to acknowledge them and to thank them, and especially to salute them for the work they do in giving us news and information in a thoughtful way. I just can't believe, though -- I'm still stunned -- that they're all here at the same time, given their schedules. That is a rare event, indeed.

The work that you have done over the years on behalf of children and reading has helped to promote to a high national priority our understanding of the significance of reading to and inspiring a love of books among our children. I'm thinking, for example, of how AAP stepped in and funded the printing of the original Reach Out and Read program manuals back before it was a national program. And it's hard to exaggerate how important that early assistance was. You know, we kind of take for granted -- if you come from a family that loves books or if you've been read to as a child -- that reading is something that is probably going on in homes and families. But I learned early on that that is not the case.

I can remember -- probably now about 16 or 17 years ago -- just visiting
with some women who were holding young children, with toddlers hanging on to them,
and we were all talking about some things. I had met them in the course of some
political campaigning for my husband. And just in the passing way one makes conversation, I said, "Well, I imagine you're having a great time talking to and reading to your baby." And there was a total blank look on this woman's face. And she just said, in a very straightforward way, "Well, why would I talk to her?" as she was holding an infant. "She can't talk back. And why would I read to her? She can't understand that."

And that was my first moment of realization that we can talk a lot about literacy, and we can put on PSAs about literacy, and we can lecture people about literacy. But if we don't somehow connect the parenting and family experience with literacy, we really lose out on a great moment, an opportunity to try to persuade children not only that books should be part of their lives -- and more importantly, to help them build a vocabulary.

And now, as we know from the brain conference that we had on what is happening
inside those tiny brains from the very beginnings of life, we know that brain cells are literally being created; synapses are being formed. You know, it wasn't very long ago -- about the time I was having this conversation, about two decades ago -- that we thought a baby's brain structure was complete at birth. And we now understand that it truly is a work in progress and that what we do with a child has a direct impact on that child's intellectual and emotional growth.

Reading is very important, and talking can make a world of difference. A recent study shows that 2-year-olds whose parents talk to them have hundreds more words in their vocabularies than children with less talkative parents. I don't know why it took us so long to figure that out and had to have research scientists tell us that. But now that we know, we should do something with it. Yet there are many parents who themselves were not raised in a book-rich
environment, and there are even parents who themselves are well-educated who don't read anymore and don't read around their children. And yet I've rarely met a parent who didn't want to do what was best for his or her child.

In thinking about ways that we could create more environments and more encouragement for the act of reading and the interaction that comes when you read to a child, we began looking at programs all over the country. And we were struck by how, in every walk of life, every socioeconomic group, there is one event that most families are religious about -- and that is getting immunizations and taking a child for well-child checkup.

But even if one misses those two events, eventually, with most babies, you end up seeking medical help. And we learned about the wonderful program that came out of the work done in Boston. It was really created out of the observations of doctors and nurses that if they left books or reading material lying around their waiting rooms, they would often disappear if they were in a large hospital setting or a public health setting. Because the people who came didn't have books and reading materials, and they would take it home with them.

And so, all of a sudden, as sometimes ideas happen, conversations started. And one doctor said to another doctor, "Well, why don't we provide the reading material and why don't we prescribe reading to our patients?" Because if you think about what will make a child's life successful -- yes, be sure they're vaccinated; yes, give that worried mom some good advice about what to do about that earache; but also think about the academic challenges that children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, will face. How can we help them get a running start?

And that was the idea behind the successful Reach Out and Read program that many of you supported. As Brian said, two years ago I had the honor of announcing a national effort to take that program from one end of our country to the other, and to use the trust and influence of doctors and health care professionals to reach -- along with librarians and booksellers and others who are in the business of books and reading -- more parents and even children themselves. We called that national effort the Prescription for Reading Partnership. And we picked the word “prescription” for a reason. When we think of a prescription, we think of those slips of papers that were handed out by our doctors, and we actually wanted doctors to prescribe reading on a slip of paper. So don't just take two aspirin and go to bed. Take this book and read it before bedtime. So all of a sudden, doctors began writing prescriptions for reading.

In just two years, nearly 400,000 books have been donated to the Prescription for Reading Partners by major publishers, many of you represented in this room. And the number of children helped has increased from 150,000 to over 780,000. We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of hospitals and health centers involved. And I've been privileged to go to several hospitals to make announcements about this program. None of it could have happened without each of you being a participant. This goes hand in hand with other efforts to try to create literacy awareness and, really, the love of learning in our country.

I'm very pleased that over the last six years we've done a lot to try to help improve education and really reach out and assist those who are on the front lines with our kids, primarily our teachers and young parents themselves. We've expanded dramatically after-school programs, where reading and studying have a major role to play in making sure that all children get the help they need after school and are kept in a safe place, where they'll be well-looked after.

We also know that through the President's America Reads program, we've organized
an army of tutors to help elementary school children read independently, hopefully by the end of third grade. And not just read, but love reading as well. There's been progress made in connecting every school and library to the Internet. And we're intent upon reducing class size in the early grades so that more teachers can be hired to work with children as they attempt to read.

I have been in and out of schools all over our country, and you can walk in and you can have a sense, almost from the beginning, about what's going on in that school. When you walk into a library that doesn't have very many books, when you walk down a hallway and you see falling plaster or broken windows, when you go into a classroom and they are using recycled instructional materials, or when you watch a teacher trying to cope with 30 or 35 8- and 9-year-olds, you can understand how important it is for us to commit ourselves to improving
public education and giving our teachers the tools, the support and the resources they need.

Because reading is often a great challenge for children who don't come from verbal backgrounds. It's also a challenge for the many, many children for whom English is not their primary language. And I don't think there would be any disagreement about the goal of trying to improve public education so that it better prepares all of our children. There may be some discussion about the strategies to follow, but there will be nothing that can ever replace the magic that occurs between a teacher and a child. And if we don't have more opportunities for that magic to happen, particularly with children who need extra help, they will just continue to fall further and further behind. But in addition to the government actions that are happening at the federal, the state and the local level -- as important as they are -- it is also critical that we continue the public-private partnerships that you have been a part of.

As this gathering knows so well, the private sector must -- and I hope will willingly -- continue to play an important role in supporting educational efforts. That's why I'm privileged to be able to announce two new private sector-led initiatives that can have a significant and positive impact on our children by encouraging them, and their parents as well, to read. First, AAP will begin an ambitious public awareness campaign called "Get Caught Reading," designed to spark an interest in reading among Americans aged 18 to 34. That's a critical age group, because it includes, obviously, the parents of very many young children.

This industry-wide campaign will include posters in major book chains and donated print ads in leading magazines. Its message -- that reading is cool -- will be carried by celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O'Donnell, who are going to be among those “getting caught.” Now, I don't know about you, but I think the milk ads encourage me to drink more milk. And I'm hoping that the "Get Caught Reading" ads will have enough of a sort of rebellious twist to encourage people who might otherwise not be caught reading to do so as well. As Pat Schroeder says, it's important for all of us to work together to promote the sheer joy of reading.

Second, I'm pleased to announce that the McDonald's Corporation will team up with the U.S. Department of Education and others to remind families of how important it is to read to their children. Beginning next October, McDonald's will produce 13 million Happy Meal bags that have attached to them booklets explaining to parents the importance of nourishing their children's minds as well as their bodies. Now, this is a great way to reach out to families who run in for a fast-food meal and are, like all the rest of us, trying to just get from one place to the next. And I really like the slogan here: "Raising Tomorrow's Learners." And that's exactly what we're trying to do.

I hope these new initiatives will inspire others in the private sector to make
similar commitments to promote reading. I don't think there are any more important missions that we can undertake as we end this century than to be sure we do raise the next generation of learners. We're certainly going to be talking about and learning about what happens at the turn of a millennium, probably more than we care to in the next months. But I think it does give us an opportunity to just take stock and maybe pause for a moment or two to think about who we are and where we're going as Americans, as human beings, as parents, as people in every aspect of our lives.

We at the White House have chosen a theme: "Honor the past and imagine the future." And, of course, speaking for myself, I could do neither were it not for the books that I've read my entire life, if it weren't for the books that helped me learn about history and historical figures and the values that we hold as we consider ourselves Americans and build our country. And I certainly couldn't imagine the future without a lot of help from a lot of people who've given thought to the human and economic and social and political and technological challenges that we face.

Tomorrow I will be visiting Alex Haley's farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, where the Children's Defense Fund will be bringing together artists and scholars, writers and religious community leaders, and all kinds of people interested in teaching the next generation of America's learners, to talk about new ideas of both honoring the past and imagining the future. A future in which every child, regardless of his or her background, what kind of family that child was born into, will have the best possible opportunity to forge his or her own future. We're going to be talking about some of the intractable problems facing our country, problems of race and poverty. And I know we're going to be looking at reading and listening to a lot of people who've written books, both in the past and today, seeking guidance and wisdom about how we play our own role with our own families and our neighborhoods and the broader community, to honor that past and imagine that future that we want.

Thank you for being part of the great act of sparking the imagination of children, of giving parents an opportunity to curl up and relax with a small child, or after the children are in bed, helping all of us to understand how we are linked together through the written word. And because of your work, I believe we'll have a better chance in the years to come to say that we have not only honored the past and imagined the future, but helped to build it, to be a better future for all of us.

Thank you very much.

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