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Paying Forward through Literacy Endeavors

By Dallas Woodburn


Hw nac uoy sue royu figst ot ayp wrofadr ot rotsher?

How would you feel if every sentence seemed like the above garble to you? If every written word was a puzzle you couldn’t solve? Like a Rubik’s Cube with letters instead of colors? That’s what it would feel like to be illiterate. Getting good grades would be next to impossible. You would never experience the joy of escaping into a good book. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about reading and writing. At age ten, I wrote and self-published a book of short stories titled There’s A Huge Pimple On My Nose that sold 1,400 copies and was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times: “If you simply want to enjoy some remarkable writing, it would be hard to find a book more satisfying than Dallas Woodburn’s.”
At age eighteen, I published my second book, 3 a.m., which also received rave reviews. Says Laurie Stolarz, author of Blue is for Nightmares: “Woodburn is a very gifted writer whose work celebrates the beauty and humor of everyday life.” Recently, I signed a contract with Foundry Literary + Media in New York to represent my first novel manuscript to publishers. Writing is not a solitary endeavor for me. I write stories to express myself, certainly, but once a story is written I do not feel satisfied until I have shared it. After my first book was published, I began speaking to the schools about reading and writing, and was moved by the enthusiastic responses I received. Many kids told me that they thought writing was ‘only for grown-ups’ until they heard my story. I founded ‘Write On! For Literacy’ in 2000 to encourage the kids to discover confidence, joy and a means of self-expression through reading and writing. My website, www.writeonbooks.org, features writing contests, book reviews, writing prompts, and more. Write On! also holds an annual Holiday Book Drive, and in eight years we have donated 10,140 new books (with an estimated value of $80,000) to underprivileged kids. I have been told that for many, these books are the only Christmas gifts they receive. Every year, I look forward to delivering the books kids swarm the boxes as if they were filled with candy. In a recent assessment conducted by the National Literacy Institute of U.S. fourth-grade students, 13% reported never reading for fun on their own; and an additional 16% read for fun once a month. In today’s world saturated with electronic media, teachers face many increasing problems getting students excited about reading. In 2009, after writing a Business Plan and garnering feedback from professors, mentors, teachers and kids, I launched a publishing company, Write On! Books, publishing anthologies of the stories, poems and essays written by young writers for young audiences. A portion of the proceeds helps to fund the school libraries and art programs. Write On! Books is based on a simple premise: who better knows what kids want to read than kids themselves? Kids can submit their writing directly on my website: www.writeonbooks.org. Writing has taught me many life lessons: the importance of following your passions, believing in yourself, and striving forward with perseverance and hope. I have also learned the strategy of breaking up big dreams into smaller steps you can take today. Big dreams can often seem overwhelming, but if you pick out one small step to accomplish each day, before long you will be amazed at how far you have traveled. It is like writing a book - if you just focus on writing one page a day, at the end of the year you will have 365 pages! Small steps, I have learned, have a way of snowballing into big leaps that you never even dreamed possible. My first book, There’s a Huge Pimple On My Nose, began when I received a fifty-dollar grant from my elementary school. I had proposed using profits from my book sales to pay the grant so an extra grant could be offered the following year. My first printing, done at a Kinkos copy shop, was modest: twenty-five staple-bound forty-page books. My fellow students and teachers acted as if Pimple were at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List. The first twenty-five copies sold out in a couple of days. So I went back to Kinkos, ordered twenty-five more books - and soon sold all those as well. After three more trips to Kinkos, where all the workers now knew me by name, I searched for a publishing business and ordered several hundred glossy-covered, glue-bound, professional-looking Pimples. My little forty-page dream evolved from a snowball into a blizzard, with reviews in the national magazines CosmoGIRL! and Girls’ Life; booksignings, radio interviews; and a ‘Dallas Woodburn Day’ at the Santa Barbara Book Fair. Write On! has snowballed magically. Now there are chapters across the U.S. - Texas, Idaho, Pennsylvania - and even a chapter in Canada! If you are interested in starting a chapter or holding a Holiday Book Drive in your hometown, visit www.writeonbooks.org or e-mail dallaswoodburn@aol.com. Like any pursuit, the writing life is full of challenges; I wrestle with ‘writer’s block’ and rejection letters. On my writing desk I have a photograph that keeps these disappointments - indeed, any problems that arise in my life - in proper perspective. By all rights... I shouldn’t be writing this essay for Awareness Magazine. In fact, I shouldn’t even be alive. I was born three months prematurely, weighing just two pounds, six ounces. The photograph on my writing desk, grown a bit faded after twenty-two years, shows my two-day-old self inside a high-tech incubator. I have a breathing tube down my nose, a tangle of heart monitor wires on my chest, and an IV needle in my thigh. I can never repay the dedicated Neonatal Intensive Care Unit surgeons and nurses who cared for me. What I can do, however, is ‘pay forward’ by helping other people in their honor. Wayne Bryan, my teacher and mentor, says: “If you don’t make an effort to help those who are less fortunate, then you’re just wasting your life.” My parents tell me I was born three months early because I couldn’t wait to come into this world. I refuse to waste even one day of my life. In conclusion... I have a challenge for you. The garble I opened this essay with can be unscrambled to read: How can you use your gifts to pay for-ward to others?

Dallas Woodburn is the author of two story collections, a forthcoming novel, and more than 80 articles in publications including Family Circle, Writer’s Digest and The Los Angeles Times. Visit www.writeonbooks.org and blog http://dallaswoodburn.blog spot.com for more information about her Write On! literacy endeavors and youth publishing company.