Many people have been misled by the title of Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared. According to the reviews I’ve read, a lot of Ozma’s readers expected a tribute to all the books that she and her father have read, and were taken aback to find something entirely different. I was a little surprised myself, but ultimately drawn in by Ozma’s story: the story of an unconventional father and a precocious daughter for whom books became a lifeline.
Ozma’s very name reflects this unique bond of theirs. She was born Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina, with the two middle names chosen by her school-librarian father, who liked the strong heroines of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. His likeminded daughter wasn’t even out of her teens before she dropped her first and last names and became simply Alice Ozma. “These were the names I loved the most,” she explains, while Kristen “was not right for me.”
Though she doesn’t emphasize this, Kristen also happens to be the name given her by her mother, who moved out when Ozma was a child. Ozma writes sparingly but forgivingly of her mother, who seems to have been dealing with some serious mental and emotional problems. But most of her affection is lavished on the father who raised her and—most importantly in Ozma’s eyes—read to her every night for eight years, from the time she was in fourth grade until her first day of college.
Ozma’s memory is a little fuzzy about when “The Streak,” as the two of them called it, began. But it was sometime around the time her mother moved out. As the family shrank—Ozma’s older sister would leave a few years later to study abroad—the tradition that had started on a whim became essential in binding together the two highly eccentric individuals who were left.
As Ozma observes wryly of her highly imaginative childhood self, “It takes a certain type of child to develop a crippling, life-changing fear of the corpse of John F. Kennedy.” And her father was just as quirky in his own way—a funny, kind, but reserved man with an aversion to being touched. The books that they shared every night, accompanied by their own personal rituals (her father even rehearsed the readings), kept this father and daughter in emotional and physical contact throughout Ozma’s childhood and adolescence.
But to psychoanalyze the book and its author too much is to risk missing the charm of the story. There was the time Ozma's father pulled her out of a late play rehearsal at school to read Agatha Christie to her by flashlight in the parking lot. The time his voice was so weak from illness that he had to “whistle-whisper” the words of Maniac Magee into her ear—Ozma having first covered her face with hand sanitizer in an attempt to guard against infection. The time when “at eighteen years old, in my full prom attire, I nestled up next to my father to hear a chapter from The Old Curiosity Shop just before my date arrived.” There are other memories too—fish funerals, club meetings in a quiet corner at a museum, a squabble over her father’s desire to put an Elvis ornament at the top of the Christmas tree—but for these two, it always comes back to books.
And that shows in Ozma’s writing, which is uncommonly mature and articulate for a twenty three year old. In his foreword to the book, Alice’s father, Jim Brozina, writes, “I doubt that Alice will tell you this in her story, but she was one of only three (out of over three hundred) students in her eighth-grade class to score ‘advanced proficient’ in the reading section of her state test. At the time our reading streak was more than four years along. She had the highest PSAT in her class when she was in the eleventh grade. At that time our streak was in its seventh year. And she won two first-place awards in national writing competitions while a senior in high school, by which time we had been reading more than eight years without a miss.”
Many parents would kill to see their children achieve an academic record like that, and some of them may seize on this idea and start a reading streak of their own for that reason. If they do, though, I think they’ll soon discover what Alice Ozma and her father knew all along: that reading together—or reading in general—isn’t just about reaping academic benefits. The Streak, Ozma explains, was “a promise to always be there and to never give up. It was a promise of hope in hopeless times. . . . But more than that, it was a promise to the world: a promise to remember the power of the printed word, to take time to cherish it, to protect it at all costs.”
Today, her father is retired from his job as a school librarian—pushed into retirement when the school system, irony of ironies, forced him to cut back drastically on reading to classes, and tried to make him spend all his time teaching them about the Internet instead. But, Ozma says, he still fights in every way he can to promote “the life-changing ability literature can have,” most recently by preparing to run for the local school board. His daughter’s book is a loving tribute to him and the values he taught her.
From Jim Brozina’s perspective, the aftermath of The Streak has been a time for him to “happily stand back to see the results” of fatherhood. He has reason to be very happy, and very proud.
Image copyright Grand Central Publishing. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
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