The ability to read well is one of the most crucial skills we can give our students, and today I’d like to encourage you to join in our efforts to build a culture of reading in Arkansas. Reading is not simply one skill of many that we choose to master. Young people who don’t learn to read well will always struggle in life. Reading changes everything. We can give our children the gift of reading by providing books at home and reading aloud to them. Children with age-appropriate books at home are more likely to excel academically. When we read to our children, we help them build a broad vocabulary, strengthen language skills, and foster a desire to read. Their memory of that time spent with parents and grandparents is a bonus.
Dolly Parton, the iconic singer from Tennessee, understands that children must read to succeed. So in 1995, she started the Imagination Library to provide books to children up to the age of five. The Department of Education has partnered with Dolly to provide books to more than 55,000 Arkansas children. Dolly visited the Governor’s Mansion in May to join us for a dinner to celebrate the expansion of Imagination Library into every county in Arkansas, which is an impressive accomplishment. Just this morning, as I wrapped up my year as Chair of the National Governors Association, Dolly joined us by livestream at our summer meeting in Maine to talk about Imagination Library. As the First Lady points out, the children who receive a book in the mail every month have a new story to read and a reminder that someone cares about them.
Public and school libraries are another important element of a reading culture. Libraries offer books, newspapers, and magazines to readers who might not otherwise be able to afford those materials. When I was growing up in Gravette and reading Hardy Boys detective books, a trip to the library was as much a part of the reading experience as sitting down with a book.
A resident of Helena once wrote to a Little Rock newspaper editor about the mystique of Helena’s public library, which “was what a library is supposed to be — dark in the corners, cool air, quiet, a little mysterious, and the wonderful smell of books.”
The road to a reading culture in Arkansas is lined with dozens of libraries, including the four that the railroad tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie paid for in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Morrilton, and Eureka Springs. Of all the gifts I’d like to leave to Arkansans, a culture of reading is one of the most important. One of our goals has been to ensure that by the time students leave the third grade, they are reading at the third grade level. To enhance that possibility, the Arkansas Department of Education launched the Reading Initiative for Student Excellence – or RISE. We emphasize phonics and the science of reading. For Arkansas to continue to prosper, we must build a foundation of readers. Our success depends in large measure on the strength of our collective reading skills. But it’s more basic than that. I love to read. Literature of all kinds has greatly improved the quality of my life. I want Arkansas’s kids to enjoy books and to read for pleasure as well as education, because we miss so much of life when we don’t.