The life you read: BookPALS whets kids' thrill for imaginative journeys

There is laughter coming from a corner of the University Village Barnes and Noble. Bookstands are angled to form an "official" dressing-room nook, and a group of very excited actresses bubble from within their fort.

"I must practice my voice," growls a woman from behind the book wall.

"You could just gargle with gravel," responds an actress in a sing-song voice.

It is 11 o'clock on a recent Saturday morning, and munchkins - little people under the age of 5, in green frog boots and bright orange pants - climb audience benches in anticipation. A pregnant queen, aided by a doctor with a lisp, takes the stage, and the show begins.

"We hold our scripts in hand so that children make a connection between the written word and the scene being performed," explained Kristina Yuen, the fairy godmother in today's show and a BookPALS actress.

BookPALS, a volunteer-run literacy program that brings talented actors, good books and a lot of enthusiasm to the stage, works to get kids and parents excited about reading and the written word.

"It is one child at a time that we are talking about," said Susan Alotrico, Seattle coordinator of BookPALS and an actress in today's show. "If we want to tackle illiteracy and the problem that people aren't reading for pleasure anymore, then we need to start one child at a time."

Last month the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey, which found that fewer than half of American adults read literature: poetry, narrative fiction and plays. While reading in all age groups fell off, the steepest rate of decline was in the youngest age groups.

"The arts fulfill us on a level that work, 9-to-5 jobs, really can't," said Alotrico.

"We are cheated because we have such rich imaginations as human beings, and books help us use that."

According to the NEA, the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002.

"Reading was my favorite things to do when I was a kid," said Michelle Patrick, who plays the oh-so-pregnant queen today and has been a Seattle actress for more than nine years. "I remember locking myself into my room and reading - reading is fundamental!"

This morning, reading really does feel fundamental. The stage, surrounded by cardboard characters from "Winnie the Pooh," buzzes with energy, and words written by local author Kevin O'Morrison leap from the page.

"I like the outreach part of BookPALS," said Tiara Nixon, a fish in today's show who works at a local radio station. "We go to these community centers, and it's a literacy program. We want to get kids enthusiastic and excited about reading. We want to spark their imagination and show them that they can bring books alive for themselves."

BookPALS, which operates in more than 18 states, recently welcomed accomplished Seattle actor John Procaccino to a Celebrity Story Time at the Seattle Central Library. In addition to Procaccino, the story time featured Mitch Ryan, Screen Actors Guild Foundation president and TV father on "Dharma and Greg."

"This program is just one of many programs trying to inspire kids to read," said Alotrico. "We are not alone in trying to make a difference in the fight against illiteracy, but we are unique because we bring an actor's skill to storytelling."

The skill of storytelling is con-sidered so important that the American Medical Association suggested that doctors prescribe "reading to children."

Studies even prove that the most important thing adults can do to prepare young children for success in school is to read aloud to them. It seems so simple, but clear-ly not enough parents are doing it.

"Parents should feel free," said Alotrico. "If we give parents permission to do funny voices and accents, that is really a success."

Alotrico advises adults to "just do it," and don't judge yourself and think that you have to perform. "When you are reading, commit to a funny voice and your kids will love your for it."

Back on the stage, the actors, clad in crocodile snouts and tutus, commit to funny voices and, well, the kids love it.

"Greetings, your munchable majesticness," says Horrible the Scary Crocodile who eats only royalty. He lunges into the audience, and a little guy, probably 4, rolls backward off the bench. He quickly picks himself up, saucer-eyed, and watches to see what happens next.

"Seeing live theater close up has a visceral connection with people," said Alotrico. "That is why magic can happen on stage." We may hope that that mag-ic follows its audience home.

According to the National Center for Education, U.S. Department of Education, reading to young children promotes language acquisition, correlates with literacy development and, eventually, with achievement in reading comprehension and overall success in school.

In addition to brain development, the 2004 NEA study found that liter-ary readers are more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than nonreaders. Literary readers are more likely to attend a performing arts event, visit an art museum and volunteer or do charity work.

Apparently, people who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities.

On Oct. 16, BookPALS, along with John Dunn, M.D., a Group Health pediatrician, will participate in "The Reading Connection." Dunn will speak about the benefits of reading to children and the impact it has on brain development. Later, actors from BookPALS will perform stories.

"When you inspire someone, you are touching a bottomless wealth of potential, discovery and energy," said Alotrico.

"Energy goes a long way. If you are energized about something, that is the real gift that you can take to create real things. You can do anything that you want. You can write a book, you can be in a play."

And, if you are a BookPALS performer, you can inspire others to read.

Aren't you ready to start that new book?

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