CASPER, Wyo. — Some 1,100 first-graders braved a chilly May morning to eat lunch on the lawn of the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper on Tuesday.
They traded cookies and sipped from milk cartons while perched on grass and curbs. Spurts of cold rain didn’t dampen their enthusiasm at being away from the classroom and outside as part of Wyoming Reads, an annual celebration of literacy sponsored by local nonprofit organizations.
Inside the museum, John Jorgensen narrated by memory a play he wrote for his late wife, Sue, whose love of reading inspired him to organize book giveaways for children after she died in a car accident in 1996.
Jorgensen spoke into a microphone as members of the Natrona County High School Theatre Department acted a scene from the fairytale play behind him. He prompted the crowd of 400 first-graders to repeat a magic spell after him.
“Sniggeldy snee, we want to read!” the crowd of 400 first-graders shouted.
“If you can read, you can do absolutely anything,” Jorgensen said after the play. Teachers started handing out books as Jorgensen continued.
“Be gentle,” Jorgensen said about the books over the excited banter growing from the crowd of kids. “Read them, read them, read them. Share them with your friends and your family.”
Jorgensen knew that not every student sitting in front of him Tuesday owns a hardback book, or a book of any kind.
“We get a lot of, ‘Can I keep it?’ “ Jorgensen said between performances Tuesday. “It’s got your name on it. It’s not your dad’s book. It’s not your brother’s book. It’s yours.”
The idea to honor his wife’s memory started while sitting around a table with friends, he said, and has grown to distribute about 8,000 books to almost every first grader in Wyoming each year. Similar programs have caught on in Oregon and Minnesota, Jorgensen said.
“We never in our wildest dreams imagined it was going to grow to what it is,” he said. “It’s just an incredible blessing.”