An Exclusive Interview with Barbara Bush

By Kim Watts-Diaz

The First Lady of Family Literacy

Barbara Bush wants you to make reading a priority for your whole family.

"Take the kids to the library once a week, and pick out a book for everyone, including yourself," the former First Lady urges. "You set an example by just sitting and reading something that interests you. My parents did that all the time. We’d read aloud together, but they’d also sit and read alone - and it made my siblings and I very curious about books. Once your children get that curiosity, books will become a habit and they’ll be readers for life."

That curiosity led to a lifelong love of reading for Bush; it’s also the cornerstone of her Foundation for Family Literacy, through which she has raised millions of dollars for more than 400 school- and community-literacy programs in 44 states. Since the early days of her husband’s vice presidency through the current presidential and gubernatorial terms of sons George W. and Jeb, eradicating illiteracy has taken international precedence for Mrs. Bush.

"Literacy is probably the most important issue in the world," she says. "Half the world population is functionally illiterate, and everything we dislike in the world, from poverty and hunger to high crime and unemployment rates, is connected to illiteracy."

Illiteracy is an especially unfortunate handicap for families here in America, Bush says. "Those who can’t read don’t have a level playing field in life. If you can’t read, you can’t get a job and you can’t take care of yourself or your children."

However, it is a handicap that can be remedied, she believes. "We have such a high quality of life available to anyone who pursues an education."

Getting Kids ‘Reading Ready’

School and community outreach funded through the Foundation for Family Literacy focuses primarily on improving basic literacy in families where English is a second language, or where parents’ income level and job opportunities are impaired by a lack of access to education.

"The foundation’s priority for these families is to implement ‘Reading Ready’ programs nationwide," Bush says. "These programs stress getting children ‘reading ready,’ whether that means teaching basic English and literacy skills or making sure that they come to school (well-fed), inoculated and healthy so that they are ready to learn. We’re working very hard to catch up on huge problems."

A Family Matter

Thanks to the family matriarch, wherever a Bush family member holds a government office, work for the cause of family literacy is not far way. Daughter Dorothy is spearheading new initiatives in Maryland, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has written every mayor in the Sunshine State asking them to invite their city’s families to read the same book together every week.

"Jeb has been very effective in bringing families together and raising children’s interest in reading," the former First Lady says. "He also volunteers to mentor a child in reading once a week."

Jeb’s younger brother, Neil, also does his part to help children learn with his new education software, Ignite! Neil was inspired to created the curriculum software with the philosophy that "all students can learn; they just learn differently" when his own son had difficulties reading and learning as a child.

Current First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian, is the White House’s newest champion for the cause.

"She’s made such an impact on re-introducing the public libraries as a resource to American families," Barbara Bush says of her daughter-in-law. "She also draws thousands of people to her literacy events each year. Seventy thousand came to Laura’s last ‘Celebration of Reading’ on the Mall" in Washington, D.C.

A Celebration of Reading

"A Celebration of Reading" is the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy’s fund-raising event and features readings by prominent authors. "Celebrations" are held in several U.S. cities each year. Much of the well over $1 million raised goes toward grants for state and local literacy initiatives.

"We raise a lot of money by making people aware of what it costs our country to have an uneducated workforce," Bush says, "but we also need volunteer action at community levels to make family literacy campaigns work."‘

You Just Have to Care’

You can help erase family illiteracy in a number of ways, Bush says. "Volunteer, and don’t wait to be asked," she urges. "Mentor or tutor a child. Tutors feel so rewarded when they see they have made a child feel better about themselves - everybody needs to know someone cares enough to teach them. You can do anything - reading to adults, carpooling, donating time or money to your church, to Project Read, Project Hope or any charitable organization. They’ll find a spot for you. You don’t have to be hugely talented, you just have to care!"




For more information on a Celebration of Reading, check out or contact The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, 1201 15th St. NW, Ste. 420, Washington, DC 20005

Project Read - Contact Volunteer Match for literacy opportunities in your city.


Project Hope

Related Reading:

  • How to Choose Books for Your Child's Reading Stage

  • Reading to Two: How -- and What -- to Read to Siblings

    Kim Watts-Diaz is an editor for United Parenting Publications.
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