- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. (AP) — Muhammad Ali used to recite poems before his fights, brashly predicting victory against his opponents, but boxing’s poet laureate had to overcome dyslexia as a child to learn how to read and write.

A new classroom collection of children’s books bearing Ali’s name is intended to help motivate and empower young students, particularly boys, to overcome a different kind of obstacle to becoming accomplished readers: disinterest.

Scholastic Corp.’s “Muhammad Ali Presents Go the Distance” features books that champion Ali’s values and are aimed at socially disadvantaged students in grades three through eight who think neither reading nor education is relevant to their lives, said Lonnie Ali, the boxing legend’s wife.

“The foundation of all education is reading,” she said. “Books can take a child outside of his immediate vicinity, his immediate environment, to someplace else. It makes them learn about other communities outside of their immediate neighborhoods. That’s one of the things this particular library has been designed to do: to take children on that next journey out.”

The collection includes a wide range of fiction and nonfiction books that generally reflect the interests of young boys because, on average, they read far less than their female counterparts.

“A lot of it has to do with subject material — getting the interest of the child, to make them read,” said Mrs. Ali, who does most of the public speaking on behalf of her 64-year-old husband these days because of his Parkinson’s disease. “The more you make a child read, the more they are motivated. The more motivation they have, the more they seek out books to read and the more they become empowered by what they read and empowered with what they can do.”

Some of the titles in the collection are “Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson,” about the legendary athlete who broke baseball’s color barrier; “Hunterman and the Crocodile,” a folk tale from West Africa; “White Star: A Dog on the Titanic,” about a young boy and a dog who bond while aboard the doomed ocean liner; and “Touching Spirit Bear,” a story of a young boy’s journey from self-destructive anger to forgiveness.

The collection wouldn’t be complete without an Ali book, so Scholastic also included “The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali.” The collection, about two years in the making, includes three libraries for grades three to four, five to six and seven to eight — each with 96 books for students to read and discuss in class. There also are additional materials for teachers, such as printable lesson plans, book notes and a classroom poster of Ali.

Akimi Gibson, vice president and publisher of classroom books at New York-based Scholastic, said the collection offers a mix of mostly contemporary titles from the publisher for “students who feel very disenfranchised from the educational process. In this particular program, we assembled books that speak to the realities students face every day.”

Having Ali’s name associated with the collection gives it instant credibility, says Francesann Lightsy, principal of the James M. Grimes Performing Arts Magnet School in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Under a pilot program, fifth-graders at the school, which is 90 percent minority, started using the books about a month before the collection’s official release.

“Sometimes parent involvement is a challenge, but Muhammad Ali is a common denominator between generations,” she said. “He bridges the gaps in a lot of ways for us. I’ll be able to get parents involved, and I think Scholastic will be able to develop this program far beyond what it currently is.”

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