New York: Hachette, 2011.
Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about. It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it. Was that book here last time? Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock? I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me. It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day. Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).
Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz. Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names. She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.
When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights. While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000? They got much further than that. From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night. Including prom night. They called it The Streak.
I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to. But this book had me hooked. It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.
The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start. But it was also a page-turner. I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them. Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading. There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide. The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line. Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well. The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat. That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.
After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes
We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but. Every night was different because every story was different. Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting. But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages. Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces. The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.
Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen. (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time. Jim Brozina was not.) Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading. As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort. The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.” This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.