The Three Questions: a Celebration of International Literacy Day

I was joking with friends today that September 8, 2010 marks the 44th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek on television. But I just received in my inbox a reminder from Bloggers Unite that today is International Literacy Day. One blogger on her website points out that 776 million adults around the world lack minimum literacy. Three-quarters of a billion people. Another one of those impossibly unimaginable statistics that’s up there with the 1.4 billion living in poverty and the half million women who die from maternal mortality every year.

Shortly before putting my children – Boy 1 and Boy 2 – to bed, my wife got back into the habit of doing what we used to do every night with them but have been neglectful the past few weeks: reading a story to them. As Boy 1 and Boy 2 cuddled up next to their mother, she read the the book “The Three Questions” by Jon Muth. The questions, asked by a boy accompanied on a journey by his animal friends, are: “When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?” 

The book is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, in which a czar replaces the boy in the children’s story. Through a series of adventures (which I won’t spoil for you if you want to read Tolstoy’s story, here), the czar is told by a wise hermit to 

Remember that there is only one important time and is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at your side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

My Richard Scarry book and my father’s Mickey Mouse
book, which he coloured in as a child in the 1930s.

It was the first time I’d heard that story. It was touching and sweet, and a welcome respite from reading Captain Underpants the night before. Reading a story to someone is so much more than simply the act of reading – it’s both an immense joy and, as I note from the deplorable statistic on illiterate adults worldwide, a tremendous privilege. I have treasured by childhood books – the photo shows my 1970 “Livre des Mots” (“Book of Words”) next to my father’s “Mickey Mouse Movie Stories” from 1934 – and I hope my children will have the same habit. Tonight’s “Three Questions” is a great read for children of all ages, and a clear reminder that spending time reading is time well spent.

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