At first, it sounds like a typical book-club meeting. In a community room of a Raleigh, N.C., apartment complex, nine parents and grandparents, aged 29 to 71, discuss the motivation of a character in a book. "Over the course of the story, did her goal change?" asks the group's leader, Deborah Williams. "It wavered," one woman says eagerly.

But they're not talking about Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Bovary. They're referring to the hero of the children's book Mirandy and Brother Wind. The members read passages aloud, hesitating, sounding out each word. "Mah-RY-ah?" falters one, trying to pronounce a character's name. Assistant teacher Sway Archible gently corrects her.

Welcome to Motheread, a nonprofit organization that uses children's books to improve adult reading skills. The parents attend the weekly meetings, explains Motheread founder Nancye Gaj, because of their "powerful motivation" to read to their children. "There are all the learn-to-read-better campaigns, but what if a person doesn't want to learn to read better?" asks Gaj, 49. "Well, maybe they don't, but everybody wants to be a better parent."

Since Gaj launched Motheread in 1987, modeled on a class she taught in a women's prison, it has sprouted in 18 states. In partnership with schools, community colleges and social agencies, Motheread now serves some 25,000 "learners" a year. In awarding her a National Humanities Medal last November, President Clinton said, "Gaj has unleashed the power of family reading in schools and homes all across America."

At Motheread classes, teachers or volunteers read along with the parents. Using a method called story sharing, instructors then discuss the book and how parents can have similar talks with their kids. The program "has changed my life," says Beatriz Herbert, 45, a Raleigh resident and mother of Alberto, 10. "We read together in a new way. We're bonded in a way we weren't before."

The technique has its critics. At first, Gaj's literacy colleagues "scoffed at the idea," she says. "They thought it was just wrong to use children's books with adults, that it was demeaning. But it made every bit of sense." Cheryl Dickson, president of the Minnesota Humanities Commission (whose state has 600 Motheread sites), calls Gaj a "genius," adding, "The beauty of Motheread is that it works in all settings—schools, home daycare, libraries."

Gaj herself is a bookworm from way back. At 5, she read so loudly that her father, Raymond Brown, a Baptist minister, and mother, Caralie, a homemaker, feared she would disturb their Louisville, Ky., neighbors. The family later moved to Raleigh, where Gaj met her spouse, Steven, a graphic artist; their son Carter is 15.

Gaj, who has a graduate degree in reading education from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, taught remedial reading at a high school and then at a community college. While nearly all Americans can read and write basic words, she says, she found that many "are not literate enough for the demands of a highly technological and print-driven society." Eager to start a program that used parent-child bonds to improve literacy, "I couldn't get anyone inside the educational system to respond to my idea," she says.

With some trepidation, she quit her job in 1987 to found Motheread, using $60,000 from a federal grant as seed money. "Nancye sees people as having tremendous potential and sees literacy skills as developing that potential," explains husband Steven. "Her mission is to balance things out for people who haven't had the chances we've had."

These days, when Gaj isn't overseeing her 22-employee organization and checking on the progress of her "learners," she relaxes in her 1940s cottage-style Raleigh home and attends concerts with her music-loving husband. She's optimistic that she will soon reach her goal of expanding Motheread to every state in the country. "After all," says Gaj, "who would have thought I would be accepting an award from the President? Who knows what's next?"

Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Gail Wescott and Amy Laughinghouse in Raleigh

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Wescott,
  • Amy Laughinghouse.