Literacy and the Breath of School Children


By Judy Bolton-Fasman | The Jewish Advocate

KIMANI NG'ANG'A MARUGE HOLDS THE GUINESS WORLD RECORD AS THE OLDEST PERSON TO ENROLL in primary school. Maruge was 84 years old when he took his place among first graders at Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret, Kenya. Maruge's motivation was straightforward. He wanted to learn to read and took the Kenyan Government at its word when it offered universal and free elementary school education in 2003.

Maruge is the inspiration for a new independent film: "The First Grader." In the film, Maruge is intent on learning to read well enough to understand a letter addressed to him from the Kenyan government. It turns out the letter offers him reparations as a veteran of the brutal Mau Mau rebellions during which Kenya won independence from Britain in the 1950s. A warning to parents: The film is rated PG-13, but often feels like an R-rated movie. Flashback scenes of the young Maruge being tortured and the brutal murder of his young wife are not appropriate for young eyes.

At 84, Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge entered first grade and taught the world a lesson in literacy.As in real life, the movie portrays Maruge as an old man being turned away several times from the local primary school until he actually shows up in regulation uniform. His shirt is tucked into his khaki shorts and his socks graze his knees. But admiration and sympathy for Maruge are not enough. There's a determined teacher, Jane Obinchu, who risks her career and life for Maruge's right to an education.

By 2005, Kimani Maruge had achieved two unimaginable milestones: He was selected as "the best boy" in his school, and he took his first airplane trip, to New York, to address the United Nations Millennium Summit on the importance of a primary school education. UNESCO -- the education, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations -- has linked improving world literacy rates to a reduction in mother and infant mortality, hunger and poverty.

PJ library founder Harold Grinspoon in Brooklyn last month, delivering the 2 millionth book. In the United States, the nonprofit group Reach Out and Read has effectively addressed literacy and school readiness as a health issue. Using a three-prong approach, the national group, which has a strong Boston program, partners with pediatric practices and clinics to champion reading. In the examination room the pediatrician discusses the salutary effects of parents reading aloud to their children. Participating doctors give children, ages 6 months to 5 years, a developmentally appropriate book as part of their visit. Doctors' waiting rooms display literature from Reach Out and Read; in some cases, onsite volunteers advise parents about reading with their children.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, based in Springfield, promotes literacy through its nationally renowned PJ Library. Partnering with local Jewish organizations throughout North America, each month PJ Library mails free Jewish children's books and music to more than 70,000 families in 135 communities.

Like many ingenious ideas, the program began serendipitously when Grinspoon heard a radio story about the success of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. Grinspoon liked that Parton was giving away free books to underserved families. When he thought about sponsoring a chapter of Imagination Library in Springfield, he realized that he wanted his book give-away to be a distinctly Jewish initiative. In consultation with Jewish educators and librarians, as well as the staff of Imagination Library, PJ Library was launched from Grinspoon's home base in western Massachusetts.

That was in 2004. By 2009, PJ Library had given away more than a half a million books. Last month, Harold Grinspoon personally delivered book number 2 million to a family in Brooklyn. He also won this year's Jewish Book Council's IMPACT Award for PJ Library's unprecedented achievement in making Jewish books accessible to families across North America. An Israeli version of the program, Sifriyat Pijama, was founded in 2009 to promote Jewish literacy among new immigrants to the country. In Boston, the program is coordinated through the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Sign up is simple and, in my view, strikingly nonjudgmental. The Grinspoon Foundation asks only for basic contact information. There are no prying questions about a family's connection to Judaism, income or motivation for wanting a Jewish book. In other words, there are no hoops like those Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge had to jump through to take his place in a classroom. You only need to consider yourself a Jewish family that wants to imbue your children with core values gleaned from Jewish literature and art.

Illiteracy has always been one of Judaism's central concerns. Without literate Jews, the synagogue becomes a cobwebbed museum; the Torah, an inert text. Jewish continuity is jeopardized. Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge -- who died in 2009 with a sixth grade education -- as well as the folks at Reach Out and Read and PJ Library have breathed new life and hope and meaning into the rabbis' saying: "The world itself rests on the breath of children in school."

Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at