Jim Trelease is a hero to millions. Jim Trelease is a hero to me, Angie Miles, founder of HAPPY Reading. The year that I was born, Jim Trelease was a recent college graduate, just getting started on a career as a journalist. When I started high school, he was busy penning the first edition of the book that would come to define his professional life. And the year I got married, Jim Trelease was being lauded by the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association) as one of eight people who had done the most for reading in the preceding decade.
But it wasn’t until the year before Jim retired from presenting that I actually got to meet him. In 2007, The Read-Aloud Handbook had only been in my personal library for three years. I had discovered it on the bookshelf of the principal’s office in the first school where I worked as a literacy consultant… sent there by the Governor’s Office of Virginia to implement a parent engagement program, which I insisted needed to be a reading motivation program for students, as well.
From the first page of the classic Handbook, the reading felt more like a homecoming…like I was connecting with a spirit so kindred that he was expressing my deepest convictions as much as he was providing exciting examples of these deep truths in action. Words like joy, delight and HAPPYness barely capture the feeling with which I consumed this volume. Anyone observing me reading The Read-Aloud Handbook might have been convinced that I thought the book was a person, given the smiling, laughing and conversation in the form of nearly constant vocal affirmations that emanated from my book-loving person…page after page.
Like me, Jim had been fortunate enough to discover a love for reading as a youngster. Like me, he’d enjoyed hearing wonderful stories at home and at school and later, he’d volunteered to deliver that literacy love to others, just as I had done. Like me, Jim had started his career as a journalist; later, as a parent, he had taken that less-traveled road that I had also chosen, becoming a book ambassador as a full-time pursuit.
Now, in October 2007, I was having the opportunity to meet this sage…this gift of a man…this guru of literacy, and the occasion sparkled with synchronicities that made the meeting as remarkable as it was memorable. Fellow literacy advocate Joanie Bache was then the director of Read Aloud Virginia. She had invited me to one of Jim’s afternoon workshops, which was to be attended by hundreds of teachers from throughout the region. But Joanie had also been kind enough to invite me to join her and a handful of select people to breakfast with Jim the morning before his presentations.
Our early meeting was in an extremely familiar part of town where I hadn’t spent much time for several years…not since I’d left my job as anchor of the evening news for the local CBS affiliate. We were meeting in the restaurant of the hotel where the guest of honor was staying. And that was right across the street from the station where I had worked as an anchor and reporter for many years. As I entered the dining area, Jim was facing away from me. But as I approached the long table, where the small group was sitting, another face caught my attention, and I was fairly floored. The person sitting across from Jim was someone I knew by heart. At a rendezvous with fewer than ten people, Jim Trelease was seated across from my 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Ms. Barbara Musgrove, whom I had not seen for thirty years.
This is the woman who had read aloud to us in class daily at my old middle school…the first person I’d heard share a chapter book in serial fashion. That first selection was Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. Each day, Ms. Musgrove had ended class by reading one chapter, unless we were successful in convincing her to read a second. And we certainly gave that our best effort each day. By middle school, most teachers are long past reading aloud to students, but thankfully, I had a teacher who loved stories and who knew that it is never too late to transmit that book love to others.
Years later, when I’d watched the movie versions of Cheaper By the Dozen, the one with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda and much later….the Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin version that entertained my own children, I thought of Ms. Musgrove’s daily read-alouds and I’d appreciated her all the more for those rich and lovely moments that continued to shine in my memory. But I had not seen nor spoken with Ms. Musgrove for three full decades. Now, these two important people in my read-aloud life…were by happenstance, here together. Some might call it a coincidence or a Godwink. Whatever you call it, it felt like absolute affirmation to me.
I learned during our brief and very happy reunion that she was teaching in a neighboring school division and, like me, had been invited as a special guest…unrelated to my invitation. Yes, I cried. Then, I met Jim—THE Jim Trelease, and we all marveled for a moment at the unlikelihood of what was transpiring. Here we were, looking out the window at the place where I had thus far spent most of my professional life…discussing the next part of my professional life…with two of the most significant figures in my literacy-loving history. Jim and I talked about journalism, parenting, volunteering, teaching and, of course, books. He confided that he was planning to retire soon, but I’m not sure that we believed him. I’m sure that I did not want to believe him.
I was able to spend the afternoon with the educators, as Jim Trelease impressed upon us the extreme value of sharing our passion for story and art and words with children who might benefit from that infusion of book love for lifetimes. He spoke about the high literacy rate in Finland, where there’s no rush for skill and drill instruction but instead a delayed start to school, plenty of time for play and closed captioning on television shows that allowed children to make letter-sound connections without pressure. He alerted us to the work of an upstart illustrator named Kadir Nelson and suggested we keep an eye on that young man, who was definitely going places.
And he reminded us of the essence of what he’d written in those many editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook…that sparking a love for reading is only possible when you have that love yourself. Anything less is as effective as trying to give someone a cold when you, yourself, don’t have one. That advice has stayed with me and I quote him often.
Now, in 2020, as we start another decade, Barbara Musgrove is no longer teaching. Read Aloud Virginia has folded. Joanie Bache has moved on. And Jim Trelease has retired. But what he did for reading through educating about reading aloud and by putting thoughts and read-aloud recommendations into a home run of a handbook that has sold millions of copies and spawned hundreds of reading programs and projects worldwide, his work will never be retired. Jim Trelease has sown seeds that will last for as long as there are people…for as long as there are stories…and for as long as it is possible to read out loud and love it.
Because The Read-Aloud Handbook continues to be published, now in collaboration with Cyndi Giorgis, and because Jim has educated so many about the ways to allow our passion for the written word to emanate into the literacy lives of so many others, he has helped to create and inspire many more ambassadors for reading aloud. We continue with his life’s work of making literacy love an integral part of life for countless readers to come. More enjoyment means more independent reading and more independent reading means more skill. And all of us reap rewards when we live in a more skillfully, joyfully literate world. Jim Trelease has known this for a very long time, and he’s devoted his book-loving life to making sure that countless others know this too, by heart.