First Lady, First Reader

Laura Bush is known for being a dignified, quiet first lady who was immensely popular during her husband’s two terms as POTUS. Her background in education and voracious love of reading helped millions of school children and adults become better readers.

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Laura Bush interacting with children in the library
First Lady of the United States of America, Laura Welch Bush, wife of George W. Bush at a reading at the Chattanooga-Hamilton Bicentennial Library in Chattanooga, Tennessee on June 12, 2003

Laura Bush (born 1946) – First Lady, Teacher, Librarian

After George Bush met Laura Welsh, it was love at first sight. They knew that they were going to get married right away. When George Bush took Laura home to introduce her to his mother and father, his mother asked Laura what she liked to do. Barbara Bush, the wife of then-Vice President, expected Laura to reply ‘Tennis’ or ‘Skiing’. Laura’s response surprised the Vice President and his wife. She answered, “I read”.

Reading is something that defined Laura throughout her life, and ultimately benefited large numbers of people, as literacy was her platform during her time as First Lady of the United States.

Laura knew from the time she was 7 years old that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. She would arrange her dolls and stuffed animals into a classroom, and encourage her friends to play school with her whenever they came over to her house. Laura often referred to teaching as a calling, and often said that she wanted to work in minority schools, where the children did not often have access to great teachers. She grew so attached to one class of students that she asked to be moved with them from 2nd grade to 3rd grade after the school year was over.

She has listed the books she enjoyed the most as The Secret Garden, The Little House on the Prairie series, and The Bobbsey Twins series. She recalls her mother reading to her for hours on end, and not wanting to put her book down to come to the dinner table after she learned to read independently. Laura also recalls having friends sleepover, and the girls reading dramatic passages from books out loud to each other, such as Beth’s death bed scene from Little Women.

A love of books, of holding a book, turning its pages, looking at its pictures, and living its fascinating stories goes hand-in-hand with a love of learning.

– Laura Bush

After teaching for several years, she reflected on the part of the job that she liked best. What she liked best was sharing her love of reading with her students. This led to her going back to school to get her degree in Masters in Library Sciences, and taking several jobs as a librarian before marrying George Bush. Her education in her Masters program included courses in children’s literature, school libraries, literature for adolescents, library materials, and library administration. She also learned how to select books for children, make book recommendations for children, and develop a lifelong love of reading. However, just because she got married and left her job as a librarian, did not mean that she stopped reading, or caring about literacy in young children.

As First Lady of the United States, Laura stated in an interview that both she and George read for at least one-half hour before bed each night and that they both read four newspapers every morning. These papers included the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, and USA Today. She also had a subscription to the Dallas Morning News, so that she could keep up with what was happening in her home state of Texas.

As First Lady of Texas, she launched the Texas Book Festival which honored Texan authors. This event also raised over One Million US Dollars for Texas libraries. Later, after moving to Washington, she and James Billington, who was the head librarian at the Library of Congress, worked together to host a National Book Festival. This Festival was meant to celebrate authors and raise awareness about reading and literacy. During this free Festival, the Library of Congress was open to the public, and people were encouraged to explore the various rooms in the library. Children’s book characters such as the Cat in the Hat and Clifford made appearances at the festival, and professional athletes made appearances to help promote the Read to Achieve program.

Laura Bush sitting besides the students during a live class
First Lady Laura Bush observes a fifth grade math class at Lovejoy Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, Sep 2005

Also as First Lady of the United States, Laura created the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries. This foundation intended to update and expand the book collections of school libraries across the country. Laura was concerned that the academic material in school libraries was out of date and needed to be replaced. Some books that she referenced still had facts like “man cannot land on the Moon” or “proper ladies wear hats and gloves and never compete with men”. These libraries needed the funds to update their collections, and Laura’s foundation raised money to distribute to schools in need.

Another one of Laura’s projects regarding literacy was a summit held in July of 2001. The summit focused on early childhood education and was co-hosted by Laura, the US Secretary of Education, and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. Researchers and professors presented papers and recommendations regarding Early Childhood literacy. Speakers spoke about topics such as how early childhood poverty affects the acquisition of pre-reading skills and how speaking to babies helps them get ready to eventually read. The aftermath of this summit focused on three areas to promote Early Childhood literacy: giving parents tools to help their children become readers, giving teachers tools for early childhood education, and recruiting the best and brightest teachers possible. She also supported a program called Troops to Teachers, which allows retired military personnel to be certified as teachers.

Laura Bush is a great example of someone who uses their influence in a calm, kind way to help millions of people. Because she was the First Lady of the United States for such a long period, she was able to accomplish a lot for the benefit of children’s literacy. Millions of school children and adults have benefited from the programs and initiatives she put into place. It is no wonder that she has received dozens of lifetime literacy awards, and has had schools and libraries named after her.

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