- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog stepped out of the pages of popular children's books yesterday to help hundreds of area schoolchildren discover the magical world of reading.
Children of all ages screamed and clapped as their favorite characters rolled down the aisle of the overflowing Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
"Reading is the key to opening up the world of education to our children," said Carol H. Rasco, president of Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a literacy organization. The National Reading Celebration was held to mark the organization's 35th anniversary.
"We want to get the word out that reading can be fun," she said.
Curious George, Clifford, Stuart Little and Winnie the Pooh offered hugs and waves, posed for pictures and then egged the children into six reading corners to listen to celebrities read their favorite books. The big names included broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts, Washington Wizards basketball player Brendan Haywood and Virginia Williams, mother of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Jori Cook sat under an illuminated tree in one of the museum's reading corners, exploring a book she had just picked up. Her mother, Candice Cook of Upper Marlboro, said Jori loves to read.
"Books are an adventure for her rainy days or snowy days. She always has her books," said Mrs. Cook who, along with her husband, taught Jori to read at an early age. "Her last report card said she was reading above grade level," the proud mom said.
Not all children are so lucky. Mrs. Rasco said that as many as 37 percent of children in the country enter fourth grade unable to read at grade level. "They may be in a home without books, or have parents who can't read," she said. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 40 million adults in the country cannot read a simple story to a child.
Emmanuel Smith, 13, of Cheverly, watched with rapt attention as Mrs. Williams read from John Steptoe's "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters," mixing lessons of life with the story.
"When you can read, you can go all over the world, see everything in your mind," said Mrs. Williams.
Emmanuel said he had enjoyed listening to the story, although he prefers to read poetry.
His friend, Janelle Washington, 8, was less discriminating. "I like to read anything that grabs me," she said.
A children's favorite was Riffington, a furry blue mascot for RIF introduced for the first time yesterday, who prefers to go by "motivational icon" and whose yellow nose is actually a reading light.
Once the reading was done, the children lined up to collect free books, including titles such as "Sleep is for Everyone" by Paul Showers, "Willow on the River" by Camilla Ashworth and the "Amazing World of Animals."
Earlier, organizers handed out awards to winners of a national poster contest and the Community Reading Challenge held nationwide.
Alejandro Moreno, a student from Sacred Heart School in the District, won the poster contest for his painting of a child reading a book and surrounded by a dinosaur, Rapunzel in her tower, and rockets. It was his own reading, said Alejandro, that inspired the poster.
He said he was surprised, but happy to win. "This was the first time I ever painted," said the 14-year-old who reads "pretty much everything."

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