- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

First lady Laura Bush will appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” tomorrow to help the network inaugurate its book drive for needy children on a massive scale.

“This is a politically neutral issue which ABC News can really sink its teeth into,” said executive producer Shelley Ross yesterday.

She credits the first lady’s “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn” educational initiative with inspiring the effort.

“I saw Mrs. Bush speak with such commitment and passion about empty bookshelves across the nation last February. She was the real inspiration,” said Miss Ross, recalling a kind of epiphany she experienced during a Good Housekeeping magazine luncheon earlier this year to call attention to childhood illiteracy.

“I had so much to ask Mrs. Bush, but I happened to have laryngitis that day,” Miss Ross said. “So I listened — just listened. And I came away asking myself, ‘What can we do about this?’ It was a genuine call to arms.”

Eight months later, the result is “Book Drive America.” The network plans to rally its viewers with a few stark facts about childhood literacy, Miss Ross said.

“The presence of Harry Potter or ‘Good Night Moon’ might be a given in many households,” she said. “But for some children, the only book in their home is the phone book. Why can’t Johnny read? Sometimes it’s because he doesn’t have a book.”

ABC News has joined forces with First Book, a Washington-based nonprofit group that already has persuaded the likes of Simon & Schuster, Random House, Disney Co., PBS, Verizon, Universal Studios, the U.S. Postal Service, Coca-Cola and 26 other corporations, charities and manufacturers to donate millions of books to low-income youngsters in the last decade.

Miss Ross cited separate studies that found 61 percent of low-income families owned no age-appropriate children’s books while 80 percent of pre-school and after-school programs had no books to offer their young charges.

There also is another kind of book gap at work here, one that pulls at the heartstrings.

Another study revealed that the average low-income child has experienced just 25 hours of “one-on-one picture-book reading” while those growing up in middle-class households typically spent up to 1,700 hours curled up somewhere with a favorite storybook.

“It’s astonishing that millions of America’s children have no access to books, but it is indeed the case. These children are waiting for our help,” said Kyle Zimmer, president of First Book.”

The group has dipped into its “book bank” and presented ABC with 4,000 children’s books — 1,000 of which will go to Maurice Tobin Elementary School in Roxbury, Mass. The school was forced to close its modest library last year by local budget cuts.

The rest are destined for other sites in the Boston area. ABC plans to raise funds for the project during the school year both on the air, and online at abcnews.com.

“Bingo winnings, cigarette money, spare change — anything is welcome. This is a real crisis,” Miss Ross said.

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