By the time Alice Ozma was nine years old, she had gotten used to having her father read stories to her. But her father, an elementary school librarian, worried that pretty soon she would declare herself too old for stories, as her older sister did years before. So they made a pact: he would read to her every night for at least ten minutes, before midnight. They disagree on whether it started with a goal of one hundred days but it eventually increased to a thousand.
“The Streak” hit the thousand-day goal and kept going … eventually lasting for nine years, until Alice left for college.
The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared is her story. Although it begins with the story of their reading pact, the book actually covers a lot of other things as well: celebrating thunderstorms and spiders, an irrational fear that JFK’s corpse is below her on the bottom bunk, learning to ride a bike, shopping for a prom dress with a single father who just doesn’t get it. There is tragedy, like when her mother leaves on Thanksgiving Day while her dad is out raking in the backyard. There is comedy — the way their cat prefers her dad’s rough handling and verbal abuse to her own gentle and practiced petting. But throughout it all, tying it all together, is the nightly ritual that they share, one that, for a long time, she wasn’t able to really explain to anyone else.
The Reading Promise is a captivating book. Each chapter encapsulates a single day of the streak (Chapter Eighteen: Day 1,948) even though sometimes a chapter may be about events that take place over more than a single day. It’s an interesting way to mark the passage of time as Ozma grows up, from fourth grade to college. She picks significant days throughout her life, or ones that paint a picture of her father, and by the end of the book you really feel like you’ve come to know this father and daughter.
For anyone with a love of books and particularly those who love reading aloud, The Reading Promise is a must-read. At the end, Ozma challenges you to make a reading promise. It doesn’t have to be a thousand days or be a streak without any gaps. You just have to promise to read — to yourself, to a friend or a child, to “spread the word about words,” as she puts it. And then, in case you need a place to start, she includes a list of books from The Streak (as complete as they were able to make it, since they didn’t realize when they first started how big it would become).
A couple of caveats: Ozma’s relationship with her mother is a bit strained, to say the least, and she is not portrayed sympathetically. At times it felt a little bit like a typical Disney movie — absent mom, wise and gentle father — so this book might be a bit painful for mothers to read. The other thing that really bothered me about this otherwise well-written, well-edited book was that Ozma (or her editors) didn’t seem to know the difference between “pedal” and “peddle.” There’s a particular chapter about her father and bikes, which is an excellent, funny story, but she kept talking about “peddling” around on the bike. Several chapters later, while talking about her prom dress, she refers to the bike story and again uses the word “peddle.” I know, that’s just the editor in me talking, and it’s the only mistake that caught my attention in the book. But really? How does an English major who grew up immersed in books make a simple mistake like that?
Ok, rant aside, I think The Reading Promise is terrific and definitely worth reading. And for those of you looking for a Father’s Day gift for a book-loving dad, this might just be perfect.
Disclosure: Grand Central Publishing provided a review copy.