Stephanie Wells Mason

Romance Author

Literacy Awareness and Montana State Speech Tournament

Mallorie (far left) with fellow classmates at the 2014 MHSA State Tournament

Mallorie (far left) with fellow classmates at the 2014 MHSA State Tournament

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day at the Montana AA High school State Speech and Debate Tournament both as a judge and a parent.  It was rewarding to watch the diverse collection of students compete in various venues from serious and humorous interpretations of literature to extemporaneous speaking about current events.  My daughter, a Junior, competed for the second year in a row in memorized public address.  This venue requires students to memorize a speech given by someone else in a public forum.  Their speech must include some kind of background regarding the date and place of the original speech as well as an analysis of the significance of the speech.  Students (with some help from their coaches) choose from a wide range of topics–it can be anything from Abe Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address to Steve Jobs and Ted Talks.

My daughter took her speech from an address given by Alice Ozma at the 2011 American Library Association.  Ozma is a young author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Read.  You can watch her impassioned speech here  It’s a wonderful speech about the importance of literature and reading in our lives.  She discusses how books connect us and that sharing books is not just about the book itself, it’s about the relationships we develop as we share books.

I listened to my daughter deliver this speech with finesse and poise.  It was beautiful. She has used this speech for the entire season–October through January–with varying degrees of success depending on the city in which they were competing.  Sometimes she would place as high as sixth overall and other times she wouldn’t even make it to the semi-final round.  When being judged by amateurs who are just community volunteers, I think who wins has a lot more to do with the values of the community and less to do with the way the speech is delivered. Yesterday I watched the faces of the judges as she spoke in the final round of competition nod in agreement at the words she delivered.  I saw them return her smile as she stood before them and asked them to make the reading promise.  With her sweet, compelling voice she had the room captivated.  It seemed we were all under a spell.

Later that night she stood among the other eight contestants on the high school stage waiting for the results to be called.  I was sure she would win.  She had gone into the semi-final round having won the previous five rounds.  By the time the students get to the finals round, the competition is incredibly stiff.  These students are all polished.  They know how to speak, and speak well.  They aren’t fidgeting or mumbling.  They are the best eight students in the state.  So how are they judged?  How do three random judges decide who is best?  I think it has to come down to the speech’s content.  Will it be choosing your future from the woman who swam across the ocean from Cuba to Florida?  How about protecting our children by John Walsh, or stricter gun control by the father of a boy killed in the Sandy Hook elementary shooting–both speeches addressed to Congress.  Or will it be Malala and her address to the United Nations?    Just where does a call for increased literacy fall among important topics in today’s world?

I listened as the first name was read–eighth place–and my heart sank…Mallorie Mason from Flathead High School.  I was so proud and disappointed at the same time.  I knew what she had accomplished.  I had heard it, felt it.  But this wasn’t just about her. It was about what she had said.  Apparently,  gun restriction is of greater importance than building relationships through books–the winning speech delivered by the father of Jessie Lewis from Sandy Hook Elementary to Congress.  Didn’t they hear?  She told them in her speech that 65% of prison inmates can’t read.  Maybe if we were reading to our kids more, less of them would be prone to go out and shoot people.  Maybe if we developed a relationship with our kids that included a love of history, fantasy, and science fiction we wouldn’t need to talk to Congress about guns.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I still feel hers was the winning speech.  I’m thankful to people like Alice Ozma for her uplifting and compelling words, encouraging everyone to stand up for reading.  And I’m thankful for my daughter who stood up before her classmates and the community to echo the same thoughts.  I know it was much more than a speech to her.  It is part of her core belief.  I’m thankful for the time she and I have spent reading books together–some of which have become our own inside jokes, a language that only she and I speak.  It is my hope, that you will be able to do the same with the ones you love.  So get off the computer, make Ozma’s “Reading Promise,”  and go read a good book!

I’ve included my daughter’s speech–Alice’s speech– below for those interested and so that you can make that promise.  Your kids will thank you!

Alice Ozma ALA Speech 2011

In January of 2011, Alice Ozma addressed the American Library Association.  This twenty-two year old author of the best-selling book The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Read, shared an impassioned speech about the importance of reading.  The world we live in, she argued before hundreds of the country’s librarians,with our computers, our tablets, iPads, smartphones, and our busy lives, has devalued the significance of reading.  To change that, she concludes, families need to work together to share a love of literacy.

Illiteracy has long been a problem throughout the industrialized world.  It’s a trend we don’t hear a lot about, but as more and more emphasis is placed on technology, it’s a problem that is not soon to be resolved.  Experts estimate that as of April 28th, 2013, there were 774 million people worldwide who could not read, 32 million of whom live in the United States.  Furthermore, statistics show that 63% of prison inmates are illiterate.

This poses the question: how many could have avoided the path of crime that led to their confinement if they had been taught to embrace a love of reading?

Too many children are missing out on not only the wonderful stories and historical significance of books, but, as Alice shares in her address, they are also losing the connection and relationships built through reading.  Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  We cannot underestimate the vital need for reading and its impact on future generations.  Alice shares with the ALA the reason for her love of reading.  She then challenges them, and all of us, to commit ourselves to reading.  As we accept her challenge, we become advocates for literacy and will improve the world one page, one book, one child at a time.   

Before I begin, I want to let you know that this is my absolute first appearance to do with a book so I’m really excited.  I’m not going to try to be professional or cool because I am twenty-two and there’s really no need for that, so let’s be honest, when I found out I was coming here, I screamed and jumped up and down for forty minutes. 

In a room full of strangers, we all have so much in common.  We’re all readers to the highest degree.  Bookworms, eggheads, whatever terms we use, I take great comfort in that.  I feel as though I am among old friends.  In fact, we probably have quite a few mutual friends.  Aren’t we all rather close to Pip and Huck and Ramona?  We may not have anything else in common but the moment I say those names, we all suddenly feel at ease.  We conjure up similar images.  We smile a little to ourselves.  Books can be such insular experiences, and yet they connect us.  They forge bonds among strangers. If you have read the same book as someone, you both have, however briefly, lived in the same world, breathed the same air, watched the same sunsets. 

My book, The Reading Promise, is about this sort of a bond.  When my father and I began what we call the streak, I was only nine years old and we made it our goal to read every night for 100 days.  What we never realized is how hard it would be to stop.  3218 nights later, we had read for almost nine years, never missing a night.

In this day and age, this sort of bond is so vital.  Twitter and Facebook, although good for some purposes, tend to give us a meaningless stream of facts about people we love.  But these facts are hollow.  Reading together is raw, perhaps even brave.  Emoting sincerely and honestly together no matter what the cause seems infinitely more valuable to me than bombarding each other with status updates and whatever information you can fit into 140 characters.  Even fiction is more sincere.

It seems a little dubious, the role computers play in our everyday lives. I want to be clear that I think technology serves many wonderful purposes, but there are some things computers simply cannot replace.  Those of you that aren’t aware, I will tell you that my father, a former children’s librarian, who devoted forty years of his life to forging a bond between children and literature, ultimately lost his job because of computers.  His passion for reading aloud was painfully beaten out of him as his school district decided that computers, not books, should be the focus of a library class.  His reading time with each class was limited to five minutes per period and then cut all together.  In the last weeks before his forced retirement my father huddled his children in a corner of the library, turned off all the lights, and read to them in a whisper.  He was caught and reprimanded.  This all took place, my dad said, in a school with 90 percent poverty rate that has not passed a state reading test in years.

It is wonderful to be in a room full of people who are fighting this kind of darkness; committed torchbearers in a dark and rather bleak time in the literary world.  I would love to know how many American children are missing out on copies of Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and Dracula.  I’m afraid the Pickwick files are becoming an endangered species.  But I don’t mean to be grim.  I hope that in my own small way to be part of the solution, to bring us back to those, whether they’re tattered old editions or e-books on our kindles.  The books we read shape our society.  So what happens to a society that doesn’t read?

People often ask me, if myfather and I called it the reading streak, why is my book called The Reading Promise?  Well, there are two reasons for that, one is that my publisher thought the word “streak” sounded a little too PG-13, and the other, is a bit more difficult to describe.  The reading promise is what my father made to me.  It’s what He made to His students, what I made to Him, and what we made to ourselves.  It’s why I stand here today.  I worked for quite some time on one particular page in my book.  It’s the last one wherein I ask the reader to make a commitment to literature. This page is the most important to me.  I’d like to share it with you now. 

The reading promise:  I, you can fill in your own name here, promise to read.  I promise to read on my own, on print or on a screen, wherever books appear.  I promise to visit fictional worlds and gain new perspectives, to keep an open mind about books even though the cover is unappealing and the author is unfamiliar.  I promise to laugh out loud, especially in public when a chapter amuses me and to sob uncontrollably on my bed for hours at a time when my favorite character dies.  I promise to look up words I don’t know and cities I can’t locate and people I can’t remember.  I promise to lose track of time.  I promise to read with the people I love, if not every night then whenever I can.  I promise to remember that this person is more than my son, daughter, father, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, or dog walker.  He or she has a mind that like mine loves to be used and challenged.  I promise to appreciate the time we spend together and the literature we read even when I am stressed or tired or sunburned, or an awful combination of the three.  I promise never to give up on reading.  I promise to support reading in my community however I can and anywhere else for that matter.  I promise to spread the word about words whether it’s volunteering at my local library or just recommending good books to friends.  I promise to speak out when reading is cut from the school curriculum and fight for them whenever their value is challenged.  I promise to tell everyone I know how reading calms me down, riles me up, makes me think or helps me get to sleep at night.  I promise to read as long as human thought is still valued and there are words to be shared.  I promise to be there for books because I know they will always be there for me.


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