In 1986, I met an amazing woman named Julia Palmer. For her, books were magical carpet rides to all the wonders of life. And she devoted most of her adult years to bringing their powerful magic to the children of New York City.
Let me backtrack a bit. Today Surface Earth posted something about Magic Carpets and tagged me. I decided to answer in my own way, since I’ve never been very good at following rules. Neither was Julia.
Julia grew up a shy, often sickly child, with a book in her hand almost all the time. She adored being wafted away to new lands and introduced to as many ideas as her thirsty imagination could embrace. As she got older, she got stronger. She married, had children, and had a lovely life. But her love of books only grew. And she decided to share the magic.
When she was in her 40s, she volunteered to help public school children with their reading, throwing her boundless passion into helping them get the same joy from books she did. She was delighted to see faces light up when she brought children books they actually cared about, rather than the meaningless ones they were being forced to read. “See Sally run.” “Why in God’s name would they care about Sally?” Julia asked. Kids who hated reading before became avid readers. Julia had found her life’s mission.
From this, she became a zealous advocate for literacy and for books that really matter to kids. She decided that all children deserved access to good books and “the world of ideas.” And, so, determined to make a difference, she raised a few thousand dollars, outfitted a yellow van with paperback books of her choosing, named the van Buttercup, and started her bookmobile lending library service.
In the summer of 1968, she drove Buttercup to the then library-deprived Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, bringing the gift of books for all. The children loved her and called her “the book lady” and she learned more and more about what inspires kids to read. She even wrote her own book called Read For Your Life, about her experiences and what she learned.
But her magic carpet ride was far from over. She became a tireless advocate for more funding for public libraries and for the basic right of literacy for all – especially children. And with that in mind, she started her own organization, raising funds to help create demonstration programs based on the ideas she found most practical and effective.
El Sitio Simpatico (The Friendly Place) in East Harlem was a lovely reading center and warm gathering place for local children. The Mothers’ Reading Program, based on the philosophy of Paolo Freire, helped non-English-speaking mothers with children in daycare become literate enough to enhance their children’s learning as well as find their own voices. Open Sesame, in Harlem, was a public school-based program emphasizing immersion in language and literature as an essential foundation of a child’s early education.
Later, the Friendly Place model got picked up by the Wallace Foundation and used to inspire their Library Power Program, which improved libraries at 100 New York City public schools (now expanded to the rest of this country, I believe.) And Julia became a nationally-known and respected advocate of literacy for all.
She lived until the age of 90 and, despite her frailty, up until her last few years, she still made the trek to a school in Washington Heights to help with teacher training. And even when she couldn’t get there any more, she tutored people who wanted to learn English in her own home.
Right to the end, she was never without a book in her hand. No matter how hard it was for her to physically get around, she could still fly to places with her imagination. And her mind stayed brilliant and active – still dreaming of new ways to help the world and still actively engaged in social activism and politics as much as possible. And she also never stopped being there for all her friends, including me.
Now THAT was one helluva magic carpet ride she took!
Thank you, Surface Earth for inspiring a lovely memory ride for me – and reminding me where the real magic is.
I miss you dear Julia. We all do.