By GUY LAMOLINARA
More than 300 cheering kids and their parents greeted Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, entertainer Ben Vereen and children's book character Franklin the Turtle on the plaza of the Madison Building on the morning of Sept. 8.
They were gathered to kick off International Literacy Day, an annual event that calls attention to the importance of improving literacy skills worldwide.
As the kids from local schools arrived, they were greeted by volunteers who gave them Franklin hats and T-shirts before they were escorted to makeshift seating -- green carpet squares laid out on the plaza before a stage. Before the program began, Ms. Joyner-Kersee and Mr. Vereen mingled with the crowd, including Library staffers and their children and signed autographs. Television crews from FOX, CNN, WETA and WGBH-Boston recorded the festivities; The Washington Post sent a photographer.
John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, which co-sponsored the event with 12 other international organizations, such as the International Reading Association, UNESCO and the World Bank, welcomed participants to "a wonderful day for promoting literacy and reading around the world."
The event was part of a day of activities at the Library; it was followed by an awards ceremony, information booths and exhibits from the 13 sponsoring organizations, a luncheon and an afternoon panel discussion, on "Literacy in the Information Age."
Steve Sunderland, of Sears' District Office, a sponsor of the event, reminded attendees that this celebration has been held annually for the past 33 years to "make sure literacy remains a top priority in our lives." He then presented Mr. Cole with a full set of the 26 Franklin stories.
Paulette Bourgeois, who was there with her illustrator, Brenda Clark, told the audience that "I don't think there is anything more exciting for an author or an illustrator than seeing children read your books."
Ms. Bourgeois told the children that "reading takes you to a different place. You are not just holding beautiful pictures and words. You are holding a ticket to a whole new exciting world."
Then Ms. Joyner-Kersee and Mr. Vereen read the first Franklin book, Franklin in the Dark, to the children as they sat among them.
Then it was time for Franklin to take the stage. Most of the children were delighted. But at least one child was frightened by the sight of a turtle the size of an adult. "It's just a person dressed up as a turtle," said a mother to comfort her child.
The kids read along as Ms. Joyner-Kersee and Mr. Vereen alternated reading the story of a young turtle who is afraid of getting inside his dark shell.
The event concluded with Franklin and his other furry friends performing a brief concert before departing.
Meanwhile, inside the building, in Madison Hall, preparations were being finalized for the program to present the International Literacy Award.
Mr. Cole, standing at a lectern in front of the heroic statue of Madison, noted that "it is appropriate to have this event here. The Library of Congress is not only the nation's library. It is a world library, with nearly half its collections in foreign languages in all media."
The director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which has held International Literacy Day since 1967, Koichiro Matsuura (left, photo by Janet Butler), echoed Mr. Cole: "It is particularly appropriate to celebrate National Literacy Day in one of the greatest libraries in the world. America's early leaders knew that learning and the availability of books are essential to a free society.
"Illiteracy is still a fact of the 21st century for too many children and too many adults," he added. UNSECO estimates that 880 million adults throughout the world, two-thirds of them women, do not know how to read or write, and that more than 113 million children do not have access to adequate education.
Illiteracy had been a fact of life for 47 years for David Clemons of Washington, D.C., who told how he "could not even read everyday signs. Someone had to read them to me. But my mother had the same" experience. In 1994, Mr. Clemons suffered an injury that prevented him from doing physical labor. He was forced to learn to read to gain new employment. Since then, "I have learned to love to read."
Carmelita Williams, president of the International Reading Association, then announced that the International Literacy Award for 2000 would go to the Adult Literacy Organization of Zimbabwe. She also said that an honorable mention would be awarded to the Program of Adult Literacy and Basic Education in Nicaragua.
"Recognizing the Adult Literacy Organization of Zimbabwe's project brings international attention to the importance of global adolescent and adult literacy efforts," she said. The program was commended for "mobilizing a large number of people and organizations to meet the functional learning needs of illiterate and semi-illiterate adults, particularly those living in rural and commercial farming areas of Zimbabwe."
More than 150 people attended the final event, an afternoon panel discussion in the Mumford Room on "Literacy in the Information Age." The moderator was Ronald S. Pugsley, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Division of Adult Education and Literacy. The principal speaker was Albert Tuijnman, of the Institute of International Education in Stockholm, Sweden, and the author of the newly released report Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America: An International Comparative Study (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2000). Mr. Tuijnman presented the highlights of the study, a 57-page monograph that draws on the database developed by the International Adult Literacy Survey, a 22-country initiative conducted between 1994 and 1998.
Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America presents 10 international indicators that allow readers to compare the literacy proficiency of Americans with that of other populations. Mr. Tuijnman discussed his research as well as the 10 tools and targets he suggests may be employed in a strategy for improving literacy in America. Four expert panelists presented their reactions to the presentation and the report and their views about its possible uses and implications. The panelists were: Patricia W. McNeil, assistant secretary for Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education; Daniel A. Wagner, director of the International Literacy Institute and the National Center on Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania; Emily Vargas-Baron, deputy assistant administrator and director of the Center for Human Capacity Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development; and Wadi Haddad, director of Knowledge Enterprise Inc. and former deputy secretary of the World Bank.