The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
April 16, 2007

Mrs. Bush's Remarks at the Big Read Event
The Barnum Museum
Bridgeport, Connecticut

11:52 A.M. EDT

MRS. BUSH: Thank you very much, Mayor. Thank you for your very, very kind introduction. Thank you for welcoming me here to this great site, the Barnum Museum, a really wonderful site to talk about The Big Read. And thank you also for recognizing my chief of staff and a daughter of Bridgeport, Anita Bevacqua McBride. Thank you all so much.

I also, of course, want to acknowledge your Congressman Chris Shays. Chris and I have worked together on many issues, but a lot that have to do with the National Endowment for the Arts and the ways we can spread our culture everywhere to every corner of the United States to make sure people read and learn to love the arts. So thank you so much for joining us also.

The mayor of Norwalk, Richard Moccia, thank you so much, Mayor, for being here. The representatives that are here from the city of Stanford, thank you for coming. And of course, our chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and really the founder of The Big Read, Dana Gioia, thank you for joining us very much. Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice is here also. She's the director of the Institute of Museum and Library services. And both of these federal agencies, the NEA and the IMLS, work together to make sure reading becomes a part of every single American's life. So thank you both.

I will have to say, from all these names -- Fabrizi, Moccia, Dana Gioia, Anne Radice, Anita Bevacqua -- I think this is actually a meeting of Italian Americans. (Laughter and applause.)

I'd like to also acknowledge and recognize the Connecticut state representatives who are here with us today, especially State Senator Bill Finch. State Senator Finch and his wife Sonya actually brought To Kill a Mockingbird to Bridgeport about three years ago. They named their newborn son Atticus -- Atticus Finch, that is -- after the character in the book. So I'm guessing Senator Finch is excited about this Big Read.

I'm happy to be with all of you today in Bridgeport, and I'm especially happy to be here visiting the Barnum Museum. Most of all, I'm delighted to congratulate each and every one of you in person for promoting American literature through the NEA's Big Read. Connecticut may be a small state, but the four cities represented here have taken to The Big Read in a big way. Big Read spring fever has spread to Waterbury and New Haven, which are also reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The Big Read city of Hartford has just finished reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Big Readers in the Nutmeg State are among thousands of Americans who are being introduced -- or reintroduced -- to the joys of literature. In 72 communities across the United States, people are learning how characters in their favorite stories become close friends that we can visit just by reopening our dog-eared volumes. They're discovering how we can escape to another world by losing ourselves in a good book, only to find truths about ourselves that lead us right back to our own lives.

This is good news for Americans and American literature. The Big Read highlights literature's importance to our culture and to our country. Americans, particularly young people, face so many competing demands for their attention -- television, the Internet, and video games -- that keep them from discovering the joys of good books. But it's important for all Americans to read our country's literary classics, because these works define us as a nation and they bring us together -- our people of so many backgrounds -- by expressing our shared ideals.

Unifying communities with the power of literature is The Big Read's greatest contribution to American cultural life. This power is on full display here in Southwestern Connecticut, where The Big Read is truly a community-wide effort. Local bookstores, high schools, theater troupes, art galleries, and even the zoo, are doing their part to get citizens involved. The hard work has paid off: Eager readers went through the initial book supply -- nearly 2,000 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird -- so quickly that libraries had to order 2,000 more. Now those are almost gone, too.

In the city of Bridgeport, the response to The Big Read has been overwhelming. Eighth graders at St. Andrew's Catholic Schools embraced To Kill a Mockingbird as part of their literature curriculum. Eleventh graders at Central, Harding, and Bassick High Schools read the novel, and then interpreted it through art, and displayed their creations at the City Lights Gallery.

At Mercy Learning Center's family literacy program, young mothers read To Kill a Mockingbird to build on their own reading skills. They strengthen their writing by composing group poetry inspired by the novel. In these verses, recent immigrants tell how they're working to give their children lives free from the kind of poverty and injustice described by Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the Bridgeport Public Library, city historian Mary Witkowski's memoir class is using the novel as an inspiration for this month's writing. According to Mary, To Kill a Mockingbird has brought together her diverse students, who span three generations. "There's something for everyone in this book," Mary explains. Younger writers respond to Scout and Jem, and Harper Lee's depiction of family life. Middle-aged writers recall America's struggles for equality in the 1960s.

For 81-year-old Millicent Zolan, To Kill a Mockingbird evokes a bygone era in American civic life. Even though Maycomb, Alabama, is a small southern town, and Millicent grew up here in Bridgeport, she remembers when the neighborhood was the center of a child's life.

"We didn't have video games, or TV," Millicent recalls. Like Scout and Jem, Millicent and her brother entertained themselves by playing outside with other children. "In the simplicity of the Depression-era childhood," Millicent said, "we'd go to the next house to get a cookie, or knock on the door and get a glass of lemonade. We knew every single mother and father in our neighborhood." For the memoir writers of Millicent's generation, To Kill a Mockingbird recalls a time when her city, and I quote Millicent, "had this tight-knit sense of community."

Bridgeport is restoring this tight-knit sense of community through The Big Read. At the library, in schools, in government offices, at work, in civic groups, and in book clubs, citizens from every walk of life have come together by reading the same good book. And they're having fun together by bringing this good book to life. Later this week at the library, children will learn how to make -- and, of course, eat -- Jem and Scout's favorite dessert, Southern Ambrosia.

Later this month, the Beardsley Zoo will host an early Halloween Costume Party for children, like the one Scout attends in the book. And I'm told this is very good practice for the Barnum Festival's Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren contest.

Throughout the month, there will be To Kill a Mockingbird film screenings, stage adaptations, poetry slams, and an Alabama-style quilting class for kids. Even local restaurants are joining in the fun. The Take Time Caf now offers a "Big Dill Sandwich," and a "Good Golly Miss Maudie Special," and a "Harper Lee Latte." Just across the street, for grown-up patrons, Ralph-'n'-Rich's now serves "Tequila Mockingbirds." (Laughter.)

One city official in Bridgeport said, "There's so much excitement about The Big Read, we can't even believe it. This is the most energized I've seen folks in town for a long time." The excitement throughout Southern Connecticut shows how The Big Read can restore literature to the center of American community life. Later this year, thanks to the NEA and federal partners like the IMLS, The Big Read will spread to more than 130 communities across the United States. By the end of next year, the NEA hopes to build 400 communities of Big Readers. I'm delighted also to announce that this fall, the NEA will add a book by beloved Connecticut author Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, to The Big Read's list of classic offerings.

Congratulations to each and every one of you for your success with To Kill a Mockingbird. Thank you for your work to promote literacy and literary reading in your community. Thanks to each and every one of you for your commitment to the arts, and thanks for supporting The Big Read.

END 12:03 P.M. EDT

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