Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If my life were a novel, it would be a page-turner

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I am always "champing at the bit" whenever someone asks me to "step up to the plate" and "give 110 per cent" to help promote literacy in our community.

I have always been a big fan of literacy. This love affair started when I was a kid and spent countless hours reading comic books because, from a purely literary point of view, they have a lot of pictures.

Now, as a big-shot columnist who owns his own dictionary, I am frequently asked to "put my pants on one leg at a time" and "keep my eye on the ball" to inspire would-be readers at literary-style events.

For example, the other week I was invited to be a celebrity reader for National Family Literacy Day, which required me to drive to a local shopping centre, sit in an oversized green easy chair and read stories to children the size of regulation basketballs while hundreds of frozen shoppers wandered in and out of the mall's liquor store.

There were a bunch of high-profile readers, including Al "Jukebox" Simmons, the legendary children's entertainer, famed for driving kids wild with his singing and ability to play a kajillion instruments at once.

The book I read was If You Give a Dog a Donut, which is a classic and contains many impressive literary bits, such as this: "If you give a dog a donut, he'll ask for some apple juice to go with it."

With the kids squatting on tiny mats at my feet, I launched into the book, employing my radio-quality reading voice, which never fails to impress the cashiers at Safeway. "If you give a dog a cookie... ," I began.

Which is when a tiny voice yelled up at me: "EXCUSE ME, MISTER! ARE YOU GOING TO SING NOW?"

"No," I explained, "I think the next guy is going to do that."

So I started into the book again. "When you give him the juice, he'll drink it all up .." I read.

"EXCUSE ME, MISTER!" the voice at my feet interrupted. "ARE YOU GONNA PLAY ALL THOSE INSTRUMENTS?"

Even I was excited when Al Simmons took my place in the big green chair, but that's not the point. The point is, a few days later I was en route to an event called Date With a Star, a fundraiser for the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba, when I was struck again by the importance of literacy.

It struck me in the sense a Dodge Neon attempted to insert itself into the interior of my car. It was driven by two young people who, in my professional opinion, had not read the part of the Manitoba Driver's Handbook where it states: "When exiting a back lane, do NOT hit the gas and slam into a vehicle operated by a beloved local newspaper columnist."

But it would take more than a mere traffic accident to stop me in my crusade to promote love for the written word. Just days later, I found myself in the basement of a local hotel taking part in Words in the Flesh, a fundraiser wherein media types and politicians were invited to read classy stuff in support of the Manitoba Writers' Guild.

For example, Fiona Odlum, CJOB's helicopter-borne traffic expert, read a chunk of Shakespeare's Hamlet -- "To be or not to be" -- that might be the most recognized passage in the English language; whereas CTV's Rachel Lagacé passionately read The Walrus and The Carpenter -- "The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things" -- by Lewis Carroll.

In contrast, I read a bodice-heaving excerpt from A Love to Last, a Harlequin Romance novel by Samantha Day. In case you are not familiar with this book, here is one of my favorite bits: "He led her to where several couples were dancing to a slow, swaying beat and took her in his arms. Moving stiffly, Caitlin stared at the swirl of pattern on his sweater."

Sweaters! Steamy stuff, eh? My reading ended when the hunky hero, Reyn, persuades Caitlin to slip into a black-satin robe and pose for a portrait, but Caitlin worries her feet will get cold, prompting Reyn to grunt:

"I'll toss another log on the fire. Now, let me set things up."

As you can imagine, everyone was feeling extremely literate by the time I finished reading. Fortunately, alcohol was served at this event.

But it does not end here. No, this morning, while you are staring blankly at the tiles above your office cubicle, I will be promoting the cause of literacy by reading the book I'm Like You, You're Like Me to hundreds of sleep-deprived kids at Joseph Teres School in Transcona as part of I Love to Read Month.

After that, I have been invited to lead an inspiring and literacy-themed game of Simon Says with the kids. What I'm trying to say here, literature fans, is: Put down your coffee, pick up a (bad word) book and start reading!

P.S. Gotcha! I didn't say Simon Says!

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2013 A2

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