Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

About a year ago, on my daughter’s birthday, I received an email from Linda Mitchell, the executive director of Metro East Literacy Project in East Saint Louis. I’d never met her before, but she wrote a heartwarming note that “we’re kindred spirits when it comes to literacy.” It was exactly the kind of reader mail that every author hopes to receive—confirmation that people have read your work, engaged with its ideas, and felt strongly enough about it to reach out.

Linda had subscribed to my weekly newsletter and read my OpEd in TIME. That day in her email she shared a bit about her own literacy advocacy and wrote “Thanks for doing all the wonderful work you do to help families live better lives through literacy. I want to be like you when I grow up. :).” 

Today, I’m returning the compliment by going on record as a fan of Linda’s grassroots work to empower families with literacy. She has been instrumental in building the confidence and home libraries of parents in her community. Linda spent years as a traditional classroom teacher in grades one through twelve, then worked as a parent educator with the Parents As Teachers program. These experiences led her to an epiphany: “Literacy begins at home. That’s the powerhouse.”

So she began delivering books to families in underserved neighborhoods and founded the Metro East Literacy Project. Nowadays, people call her The Book Lady. Notable Human Films produced a mini-documentary about Linda that powerfully communicates her deep dedication to family literacy, inspired by her grandmother’s inability to read. 

In the documentary, Linda explains, “It just makes me mad when I think about my grandmother, who was denied the right to read, wasn’t taught to read and write, and before her, all the other enslaved people who were denied that. And there’s a reason for that, because reading is so powerful.”

“I credit everything in my life with having that skill,” she says. “I can teach myself. I’m teaching myself languages. I’m teaching myself anything because I can decipher those words on a page I can comprehend. And to think that there are people who are not able to do that and navigate their lives, and they suffer. They suffer because of it. I feel like it’s my divine assignment. And so no matter how steep the hill is, I’ve got to keep climbing, because there’s somebody, some family out there who’s going to be free, their literacy is going to be their liberation. It’s going to take them higher, and that’s what I believe.”

Fostering literacy for all takes all of us doing what we can to make a difference in our spheres of influence. May Linda’s work inspire you to champion reading in your home and beyond.  

Like this post? Share it!