Tag Archives: literacy

How the Love of Reading Saved Oprah’s Life and Unlocked Her Potential

Why Oprah’s early life of poverty, neglect, and abuse wasn’t the final word…

She’s one of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world. She has excelled in every form of media. Her stamp of approval on anything in almost any sphere influences thousands. Maybe millions.

But when you consider her early years, the trajectory of Oprah’s extraordinary life is not one anyone would ever have predicted. Here are the facts:

  • She was born a black child to an impoverished unmarried teenage mother in the deep south in 1954
  • Oprah’s spent her earliest year living with her maternal grandmother Hattie Mae who taught her to read by age three, took her to church, and believed in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ “Oprah was beaten almost daily.” (Krohn, Katherine E, “Oprah Winfrey: Global Media Leader,” USA Today)
  • Because they were so poor, she wore potato sacks for dresses and was made fun of
  • At age six Oprah went to live with her mother whose work as a maid left little time for her
  • An uncle molested her when she was nine years old.
  • At 14, Oprah ran away from home, became pregnant, and had a son who died shortly after birth

There’s scant reason to believe that a person with a background such as Oprah’s could overcome it and become not only functional, but an extraordinary success story.

So, what happened?

Although she had stayed with him intermittently in her younger years, as a teen Oprah went to live permanently with her father Vernon who was instrumental in helping her turn her life around. For the first time, she had consistent structure and encouragement. According to Oprah,

“…every single week of my life I lived with them I had to read library books and that was the beginning of my book club. Who knew? I was reading books and had to do book reports in my own house. Now, at 9 years old, nobody wants to have to do book reports in addition to what the school is asking you to do, but my father’s insistence that education was the open door to freedom is what allows me to stand here today a free woman.”

Unquestionably, Oprah exhibited innate intelligence and verbal gifts as a child—she learned to read by age three and her grandmother recalled her playing at interviewing her corncob doll. But the combination of loving discipline and bi-monthly trips to the library was the catalyst that changed her world. “We would go to the library and would draw books every two weeks. I would take out five books, and I would have a little reading time every day.” In high school, Oprah became an honors student and was voted Most Popular Girl. Her transformation had begun.

Poverty, neglect, and abuse are part of Oprah’s story, but they don’t define her now. Falling in love with books became the key that unlocked her intelligence, her innate verbal and empathetic gifts, and her ability to imagine a different life for herself. Reading opened new worlds for her and empowered Oprah to move out, little by little, into a life beyond the limitations and suffering of her childhood.

Source material:

Reading for Life: Oprah Winfrey,” American Libraries Magazine, May 25, 2011

“A Childhood Biography of Oprah Winfrey,” Blackfacts.com

“The Greatest Gift of the Invisible Toolbox, or Why We Really Read”

If your family is feeling anxious and adrift in these uncertain times, a nightly read-aloud ritual can bring enormous comfort, not only to your children, but to you too.

Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

“Reading aloud nurtures the parent-child connection. When reading aloud is part of a daily family routine it provides a steady point of connection both parent and child can look forward to and count on. Practicing this daily ritual communicates not only that reading is important, but that the child is important. Snuggling and cuddling up together with a book creates feelings of warmth and can even provide a bit of an oasis from daily pressures and burdens. 

Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine.

My son’s father and I divorced when he was quite young and our nightly story-time ritual meant a great deal to us both during those difficult days. One winter evening an old friend of mine from high school was visiting from out of town. After dinner and his bath my son, who was about five, trotted downstairs in his footed blue pjs, a book tucked under his arm. He marched right over to my friend who had settled into a rocking chair by the fire, and politely instructed her that she would have to move. A bit startled, she asked why.

“Because my mom and I have to toast our toes by the fire,” he answered matter-of-factly. 

‘Toasting our toes by the fire’ was code for our nightly ritual of snuggling up in the rocker by the fireplace and reading together. My son was not about to let anything or anyone interfere with this. Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine. The warmth and closeness of cuddling together with a book at the end of a long day meant just as much to me….”

April 14th. Available now for pre-order.

“It may be small, but it’s mighty…”

When I met my newborn book for the first time, it wasn’t love at first sight. I held the tiny tome* in my hand, eyeing it critically, wondering what people would think. Couldn’t she write a book with more pages? Would they think it lacked substance?

A smallish gift book was what I’d planned all along, a volume so not intimidating and so visually appealing that even the most reluctant parent reader would consider picking it up. But when my agent and I met with my editor and the company’s CEO last month via Zoom and learned that Mango had reversed their earlier decision and now planned to print The Invisible Toolbox in soft cover instead of hard, my heart dropped. I was not only disappointed; I was worried. Would a softcover gift book have the same appeal as hardcover?

Mango’s marketing department was concerned that titles comparable to mine were priced at a rate with which a hardcover book wouldn’t be able to compete. Like a wounded parent, I protested: But my book is unique! There isn’t anything out there quite like it. They weren’t moved. And so the decision was made. It was out of my hands.

“I wasn’t sure I could sell it. But then I couldn’t resist.”


When Federal Express left a carton of complimentary author copies on my doorstep this week, I called my agent. “It’s so little.”

She laughed. “Remember, I almost didn’t sign you because the book is so small. I wasn’t sure I could sell it. But then I couldn’t resist.” Julia believes in the message and understands what’s at stake. For her, it’s all about saving democracy. Maybe you’ve seen the meme: A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.

Thank you, Julia, for blowing away any lingering wisps of self-doubt. The Invisible Toolbox may be small. And it may even have a softcover. But its message is mighty.

* An oxymoron, I know, but I like the alliteration.

Thank you, Jeff Conyers, President of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Dollywood!

Dolly Parton’s organization is doing amazing work promoting literacy. Her foundation has donated over a million books to children from birth to age five throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I couldn’t be prouder that THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX has the endorsement of Jeff Conyers, the president of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Available for pre-order now!

The Critical First Five Years

As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.

Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.

By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.

The Power of a Reading Promise

If you think a nightly read aloud ritual between parent and child is a luxury only for those who are well off with smoothly running lives, think again. Alice Ozma’s best-selling memoir, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared doesn’t just dispel that notion; it illustrates that this simple, daily communion between a book, a child, and a parent can shine a light that soothes the pain of the present and points the way to a hopeful future.

Alice’s father, an elementary school librarian, was fortunate to have a mother who read to him as a young boy. When his daughter Alice was nine, they made a pact to read aloud together for one hundred nights straight. The pact eventually became known as The Streak, stretching out into 3,200 nights and nearly nine years. They marked the final night of The Streak on the steps of Alice’s college dorm, reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, symbolically, because it was the book with which they started.

One suspects that their commitment to The Streak was intensified by the family’s rupture. The Thanksgiving Alice was nine her mother, who we later learn suffered from mental illness, abruptly moved out, leaving Alice’s father to parent two daughters alone. As a man not prone to talking about his feelings, he wasn’t able to help his youngest directly process her own. What he was able to do though, was give her the gift of himself, his time, and his love of books. Through sharing fiction together daily, he not only strengthened his connection with his daughter, he opened worlds of possibility to her.

Recent studies in neuroscience show that we experience fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. Beyond the language-processing parts of the brain that are triggered when we read, the sensory regions are as well. So when we talk about entering into the world of the story, this is in fact what our brains do. Despite the obvious pain that is far below the surface in Alice’s retelling of her story, she is carried along and buoyed by her father’s love and the worlds they share. The loss of her mother, a father who is not comfortable talking about feelings, and her family’s limited financial resources are not determinative for her.

Throughout her school career Alice scored at the top of her class in reading and won awards in writing. Then her graduate school admissions essay on The Streak became a New York Times article which led to publishers taking notice. And so she found herself writing a memoir at the age of twenty-three. Hers is a story that will make you laugh out loud and maybe tear up too, but never is it sentimental or cloying. It is deeply moving, though. If you’re a parent of young children, it may inspire you to make your own reading promise. For this parent of a young adult, I found myself wishing for a do-over—wistful that I didn’t continue read aloud time with my son beyond elementary school.

Originally published by Kim Jocelyn Dickson at fractuslearning.com.