This past June, I was both honored – and humbled – to speak to the Newark’s East Side High Senior Graduating Class of 2017. Bridge of Books has been sending books to these students for several years.  The 2016-17 school year saw a big push for pleasure reading, with teachers using our books to implement a “DEAR” program – drop everything and read.   My remarks are below.  


When your English teacher, Mrs. Murray, asked if I would give your graduation address, I was thrilled.  And then I started to think about what I could say and I got nervous…really nervous at times – usually in the middle of the night.

When it comes right down to it, books are the reason that I am here today.  So, I figured that books would be a good place to start.

 My mother actually thought I would never start reading.  But then I turned 12 and found gothic romances.  Basically –graduation2017d dark castles, bad weather, a little bit of mystery and a good romance.   By no means great literature, but I was hooked on reading. 

 Some 35 years later, I can happily say that I now totally and completely love books.  I’m pretty sure it happened once I started Bridge of Books.   I adore a good story – fiction, non-fiction, mystery, sports, fantasy, picture book, young adult or adult – I will read anything.  Honestly, I never really knew how many different kinds of books are actually out there before Bridge of Books. 

I can remember bringing books to give away at an event in East Orange several years ago.  There was a young boy sitting by himself.  I asked him if he liked to read and he flat out said “NO.”  Pretty definite answer.  So, I asked him about himself – did he like school? Sports? Music?  About 10 minutes later, we had several sports books picked out and safely tucked away in his knapsack to take home. 

I’ve actually had this conversation many times over the years – mostly with boys, but some girls as well and definitely with kids of all ages.  Sometimes it’s taken me longer than others, but I can say that I have rarely failed to find at least one book for a child who first claimed not liking to read. 

Whatever your goals in life, be persistent.  Don’t give up.  If you don’t get it the first time, do your research.  Change your approach.  Keep at it until you know that you’ve tried everything you can. 

In my case, “research” means reading a lot of books.  I may not always like a book, but I will read at least 50 pages – to see if I might start liking it and to learn enough about the plot to be able to suggest it to a kid looking for a book.  

Our partner – English Teacher Meg Murray.

I’ve come to appreciate the value of being as persistent as I can possibly be – especially when in pursuit of something that matters to me.    To date, we have distributed just over 800,000 books to kids all across New Jersey.  Getting to this number has taken a lot of hard work, determination and, above all, persistence. 

It’s about learning to work with people who may not do things exactly the same way you would and realizing that you can and will still get the same result.  

It’s about figuring out where you are going to store 18,000 books that are being donated in 2 weeks because you can’t say no and they definitely can’t go to your house.

It’s about not giving up on the opportunity to give a TEDx talk even after you’ve been told to resubmit your application and your family has in no uncertain terms told you to let it go.  (By the way …They did eventually accept me.)

Now I want to be clear that I am not talking about a “bull headed” kind of persistence.  Rather, I am talking about a “no regrets” kind of persistence.  Be open to asking for help.  Be open to learning from any mistakes that you may make along the way.  Be open to suggestions from others.  If you get to the point where you still aren’t there and you can honestly say that you have tried everything, then it may be time to walk away and that’s ok.   It’s that persistence that will help you face and overcome the challenge to finding a new path.

Since I do give away books and because I do adore them, I just have to say – keep reading.  Whatever you can get graduation2017ayour hands on – books, newspapers, magazines.    Learn about language.  Learn what kind of writing you like.  Learn about what is happening in your community, in New Jersey and beyond.  Remember as you move on toward figuring out your place in the world – WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. 

I’ll close with a Dr. Seuss quote with my own twist: “The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, who knows how many more places you can go?”