Merlene Davis: Buy books for Christmas and change a life

During the summer months, back in the days when children could walk a couple of miles without an adult nearby to protect them, my sister and I would go to the only public library in Owensboro and claim as many books as we could carry back home.

Later, we tagged along with our mother as she drove to the A&P, which was behind the library, and to Kroger, which was across the street from it, to do grocery shopping on Fridays. Because we had transportation, we could load up on even more books.

We then would spend the next seven days reading our treasures before taking them back the next Friday.

In addition to cleaning the house daily, washing and hanging out laundry and ironing three days a week, dish-washing detail and completing any other chores assigned, my sister and I would share the dozen or more books we had between us and be ready for more when grocery day rolled around.

In those days, we weren't allowed to watch TV until it was time for the evening news. And outside games were played only after all chores were done.

Our greatest joy was reading, and it didn't cost our parents a dime.

I guess that is why I kept books around throughout the house as my children were growing up. Reading wasn't a hard sell for my daughter, but I had to find just the right topic and books for my sons, who were reluctant readers.

Thank goodness for the Goosebumps series and animal adventures. Letting my sons read those books allowed me to push other books under their noses as well.

So, when I hear the dismal numbers associated with the literacy of black children, of the growing achievement gap and of black children falling behind further and further each year, I can't help but find more children for whom I can give books at Christmas.

Recent reports show black kids are not the only students falling behind.

The newly released 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares scores for 15-year-olds in 66 countries, placed 15-year-olds in the United States in the middle of the pack in reading and science scores and below average in math.

The math and science scores were the same as they were in 2006. But the scores for reading, ranking our kids 14th in the world, were the same as in 2003.

China ranks first in all three. Chinese children spend more time in class than American students. I don't think that will change anytime soon. But what can change is how we classify down time. If we parents consider reading as down time, I think the kids would still be learning as much as when they are in class. And if we can give those students who are falling behind a boost through reading, then all scores will increase.

As the old public service ad campaign said, "Reading is fundamental." Anyone who can read and understand what they read can stay a little ahead of the game academically and in the real world. I believe that.

I gave several books to two elementary-age brothers at my church last year. One child, a voracious reader, loved the gifts; the other not so much.

Do you know what I'm giving them this year? More books. Even reluctant readers need to open books to reveal imaginary worlds of escape.

That's what video games do. Why can't reading be considered fun, too?

I'm tired of hearing about our children lagging behind. The ones I talk to have very bright minds and great beliefs in their futures. I think reading only enhances that.

The best gift we adults can give children, but especially African-American children who lag behind others in scholastics, is a book. Find one they would like, one they can own. Then put a note in it encouraging them to visit a public library for more inexpensive fun.

I, like so many others in Lexington, want to concentrate on the young people who seem disposable, who have fallen out of grace with our educational systems. I want to help more black boys and men love reading.

Let young black men re-live the pain of segregation by introducing them to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Rap has nothing on those writers.

Also, the young men will see the power of words if they read the writers who used their pens to protest the Vietnam War and the lack of civil rights.

It will give them something more to focus on than sex, money and hopelessness.

Don't forget the girls. Let them see what a woman looks like or how she carries herself through the eyes of Zora Neale Hurston or Nikki Giovanni. Give a copy of Rise up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, edited by Cecelie Berry, to a young mother and let her hear the voices of those who have been where she is going.

Books can change lives if we just get them into the hands of those whose lives need changing.