Cheri Daniels and the Scholastic Summer Challenge

She's a wife, a mother of four, a grandmother, a fitness enthusiast, and a first lady.

And she's also a passionate champion for literacy.

Cheri Daniels, wife of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, is one of 48 U.S. governors' spouses who have signed on as "Reading Ambassadors" of the annual Scholastic Summer Challenge. The challenge is a free program dedicated to keeping kids motivated to read every day during the summer months.

The Reading Ambassadors are an integral part of the program, each having pledged to reinforce the importance of summer reading in their home states.


I recently had the chance to chat with first lady Daniels about her favorite books, her thoughts on the importance of reading rituals, and how she's helping to ensure that the children of Indiana grow up as successful readers.

Earl: Reach Out and Read is a longstanding partner of Scholastic, and our organization is also part of the Summer Challenge. Why was it important for you to sign on as "Reading Ambassador" to help Scholastic promote the importance of summer reading to children and families across the country?

Cheri: I decided to become an ambassador because I had already, as first lady, started visiting elementary schools all over the state and reading to children from kindergarten through third grade. So this was just a natural thing for me to become a reading ambassador.

I always try to tell children when I meet with them that reading is the key to success. If you're a good reader that means you can be a good learner. I also try to tell them that reading isn't just something you do at school because you have to -- it's something that you can do for pleasure. I try to encourage them to read all year long.

Earl: You recently donated 500 books through Scholastic to Henryville Elementary School near your hometown of New Albany after the school was devastated by a tornado. What do you hope the children got from these new books in this time of need? Why are books the best gift of all for a child?

Cheri: A library is a great resource in any school, in any city for that matter. It was important to get Henryville back on track as soon as possible and to get that library starting to fill up that so that kids could not only get their textbooks in the classroom but that they could also have reading for enjoyment available.

It's just so important that we encourage children at a very young age that even if they can't read, then they should be read to. That what I try to tell the kindergarten kids: Have mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, your aunt, your uncle, or your older brother or sister read to you. It's very important! It's just like any other habit; you learn to be active and exercise every day, you brush your teeth every morning, you read a book every afternoon or every evening before you go to bed.

Earl: Tell me a little bit about the "I Love to Read" program that you support in Indiana.

Cheri: "I Love to Read" is a program that's involved Central Indiana schools for the past 21 years. I've been involved since 2005. It's for grades one through eight, public and private accredited schools. It's a two-month challenge that starts immediately after the winter break and goes until the end of February.

The kids make a commitment so that they can enjoy the benefits and the pleasures of reading. Every year, children in grades four through eight have to read a total of 2,500 minutes; those in grades one through three have to read 1,200 minutes. Classrooms and individual readers can be awarded different prizes and we have a little ceremony every year. And every year, it seems like we get more and more kids who meet those goals!

Earl: On your website, you list reading at one of your favorite hobbies! We're so thrilled to hear that! What kind of books do you prefer? Why do you enjoy reading so much?

Cheri: I read several different types of books. I love books about history. I'm actually trying to read a book on every U.S. president. I'm a complete Lincoln freak -- I love to read anything about Abraham Lincoln. For just plain pleasure reading, I am a huge Harlan Coben fan. Because of my love for his books, I have actually had an opportunity to meet him and become friends with him. And then just for fun, I like Janet Evanovich books. Her Stephanie Plum series is hysterical.

Earl: I know you are a mother of four girls -- tell me a little about the reading rituals you had in your home when they were growing up? And when you were growing up?

Cheri: As a child, I had an aunt who would go to the library all of the time and I would go with her. My aunt got me my library card, and I continued to go to the library with her. Every summer, I would join the summer reading program at the library and get a little bookworm pin, or whatever the theme was that summer. My goal was to read the maximum amount of books!

I just read everything! I think my favorite books that I really remember are the ones I read to my girls. I started my girls with books in the crib. I would put a stack of Little Golden Books or Berenstain Bears books in the crib with my first daughter. It was funny -- she would look through the books and then we'd hear them thud to the floor. We knew that thud meant she was asleep.

I started to read to my girls when they were still babies, I would just have them sit in my lap. I think great books for that are Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon. There are few words and very colorful pictures in Goodnight Moon and of course, Pat the Bunny includes a tactile opportunity. Even my granddaughter, who is now 5 ½ months-old gets a book read to her before her afternoon nap.

Earl: In Indiana, every third grader must pass a reading skills exam before entering the fourth grade. Why do you think it's important that all children have strong reading and literacy skills as they move through school and into their futures? What can parents do early on to help prepare their children for success on the IREAD exam, and for overall success in school?

Cheri: For parents, it's read, read, read! That's it. You have to sit down with your child and you need to read with your child. Not once a week, every day! And especially during the week, it's a great ritual that you can have and nice bonding time with your child.

It's sad because so many people use the TV as a babysitter. That's time you could really spend reading with your child. It doesn't take that long -- 20 minutes a day to just sit down and cuddle up with your child. Those are some of the best memories with my children -- having them all snuggled up right beside me on the couch reading books.

Photo of Cheri Daniels courtesy of the State of Indiana.