Laura and Jenna 'Read All About It'
It's no simple task when Laura and Jenna Bush roll into Los Angeles for a book reading.
At 10 a.m., three hours before the First Lady and daughter took the stage at the L.A. Central Library, there were upward of 30 police officers milling about at the top of the grandiose escalators that creep down four stories beneath Grand Avenue. Outside, 17 Crown Victorias of varying neutral hues lined the no-parking zone on Flower Street.
The reading was to promote Laura and Jenna Bush's new children's book, "Read All About It." At an invitation-only event for supporters of the Los Angeles Public Library and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, Laura and Jenna read from the book and took some questions in front of an audience of second-graders from Esperanza Elementary School and predominately well-heeled women.
With invitees arriving around noon, the Bush family was held up half an hour. In total, the reading and questions took about 20 minutes.
"Jenna just happened to have a friend in San Francisco who's getting married this weekend, so we were happy to stop by," Laura said, taking her seat. During her introduction she also spoke briefly about the Big Read operation, which is a kind of book exchange program with Egypt where Americans are introduced to authors like Naguib Mahfouz while Egyptians, in turn, get to read selected American authors.
Mrs. Bush sat next to the newly married Mrs. Jenna Bush Hager--fresh and alarmingly tanned from a European honeymoon -- and together, they took turns reading from their book as illustrations were projected onto a screen behind them. Both the second-graders and the adults had copies placed in their seats to facilitate reading along.
And what of the book itself?
"Read All About It" is 32 pages, robustly illustrated and about the size of a thick white clipboard. The story centers on Tyrone, a student who excels in math, science and sports with equal aplomb. The only problem: He doesn't like reading. Books, after all, are BORING. But, when "strange visitors" begin dropping by the classroom for story hour, it is only a matter of time before Tyrone will have his distaste for the printed word turned, magically, on its head.
Roger Sutton gave the book a less than favorable review in the New York Times.
Laura and Jenna fielded pre-written questions from the second-graders. One asked, "Do you miss teaching kids now that you've become an author?"
Jenna, who has been a third- and fifth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., said that she did indeed miss it and mentioned a favorite book that she'd taught to her students, "Miss Nelson Is Missing" by Harry Allard. None of the children seemed to be familiar with the title.
"It's written by a Texan," Laura pointed out.
"Is it nice living in the White House?" was another question.
"It's a beautiful, grand house," Laura said. "It has furniture that's belonged to a lot of different presidents. We have beautiful art and gardens and a bowing alley and a famous pastry chef." This got laughs from the adults.
Did either Jenna or Laura Bush have any advice for aspiring writers?
"Just continue to read a lot. If you want to be writers, you have to read, read, read," Jenna said, quoting one of the teachers who had inspired her.
But what (if I may ask) of George Bush's reading habits?
In August 2006, the presidential reading list was made public. Bush was purported to have read:
Edvard Radzinsky's "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar";
"Salt: A World History," by Mark Kurlansky;
The Oppenheimer biography "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin;
Geraldine Brooks' "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women";
John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History"
Of course, all sorts of perfectly silly symbolism can be taken from these titles (he read others too, the expected baseball biographies and books on Lincoln). But perhaps the book most ripe for an emblematic guess-fest was the last on the list: Albert Camus' "The Stranger." Neva Chonin's bookworm response to Bush's existential reading material can be read here.
Interestingly enough, a bit of a kerfuffle ensued just the year before, in 2005, when Bush recommended Tom Wolfe's newest book "I Am Charlotte Simmons." A story of college boys and beer and promiscuous sex as told through the eyes of a girl who finds herself knee-deep in all three, the president's "unofficial" recommendation raised more than a few eyebrows.
But back at the library, with the questions done, children and adults formed neat, orderly lines to have the books signed by both authors.
Ultimately, a clarion call for literacy the Bushes' book isn't. No major feats of inspiration can be found between its pages--just a simple, didactic story told in pictures. That being said, at least we can be comfortable knowing that, in the waning hours of the presidency, minor efforts are still being made.
[Top photo of Jenna, left, and Laura Bush by George Ducker]