A newspaper strike is not a pandemic. But for a child, an emergency is an emergency.
In 1945, the urgency was: no fun.
No Dick Tracy. No little orphan Annie. A newspaper strike in July had left New York City paperless. The kids had no idea how Prince Valiant, or Nancy, or Li’l Abner was going to come out of their latest scratches. It was then that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia intervened.
There was no reason, he said, for children to suffer because of “a quarrel between adults.” So he turned to WNYC’s mics and started reading the comics aloud.
“This is Dick Tracy,” he said. âNow let’s see what Dick Tracy did. And – still a stage character – he would do all the vocals and sound effects, and offer little asides and comments as well. “RIPPPPPP! She’s tearing up the laundry over there. Nice little piece of delicate lingerie. Now take this photoâ¦ “And after repeating what Breathless Mahoney said to Wetwash Wally, he would end it all with a moral.” Say kids, what does all this mean? always brings sorrow and sorrow and misery and disgrace.
It is one of the indelible images of La Guardia’s third term. And now another mayor, in another crisis, is ready to provide a similar service.
Paterson’s children sidelined by COVID-19, missing library visits and storytelling hours at school, can tune in twice a week to “Silk City Story Time.”
Mayor AndrÃ© Sayegh and his wife, Farhanna, will take turns reading picture books at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on Paterson Channel 77 (Cablevision) and Channel 32 (Verizon). These stations are only available in Paterson, but the segments, aimed at K-5 children, can also be seen on Youtube.
“We have three children of our own,” he said. “So we’re going to be reading for our children and the children of Paterson simultaneously.”
Like La Guardia, he’s a keen reader. âI love to read to children,â Sayegh said. “I’m animated. Demonstrative. I tend to get into the characters.”
Much like La Guardia, he and his wife research stories with a lesson.
âWe’re big fans of history, so we’ll probably read up on leaders like Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln,â Sayegh said. âAt a time like this, we want to read books about leaders. How they react to conflict and controversy. We want to read books about leaders during tough times.â
Did we mention that adults – as well as children – can find solace in children’s books?
Times have been particularly difficult for Sayegh: he tested positive for COVID-19 and was on the mend for weeks (he is currently negative). His wife, also positive, has just been retested and tested negative. Children Sophia, 6, Kayla, 4, and Ayden, 1, are all negative.
“It has been a very difficult few weeks, but we are only at the end of it,” said Farhanna Sayegh.
During this time, their children – like all children – take shelter in place. And in their free time, like all children, they like to listen to a good book. Hence, “Silk City Story Time”.
“If they don’t go back to school, it means the students missed a third of the school year,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, it’s not going to replace what has been missed. But we are doing our part to instill the importance of reading in these children. Because frankly, I don’t know if parents have it. time to read to their children. But at school, there is time. And we will make up for lost time. “
Stories with purpose
The first installment of “Silk City Story Time” on April 28 has a practical purpose.
“We count!” by Lisa Bernstein, is a children’s book on the census, commissioned by the Town of Paterson from the Taub Foundation. It should be pretty fun for the kids. But it’s also an important reminder, in times of disruption: The census is the key to getting the funds Paterson, and many other places, desperately need.
âIt’s money for emergency preparedness and disaster relief and potentially another hospital,â Sayegh said. “I believe that in the current crisis these three elements are necessary.”
Which is not to say that “Silk City Story Time” won’t offer lighter rates either. âWe could do ‘Star Wars’, we could do ‘Frozen’,â the mayor said. “And we are open to suggestions.”
âSilk City Story Time,â actually has its roots in something the Sayeghs started, long before COVID-19 was a point on the vector map.
Literacy has been a key issue for First Lady Farhanna Sayegh, since her husband took office on July 1, 2018.
âHere in Paterson, less than a quarter of our students read at or above grade level in third grade,â she said. âAnd the third grade is an indicator of future success. I care about that. I think it’s important for parents to read to their children 15 minutes a day. It’s so easy to give a child a tablet, a device. I think it’s more important for kids that parents stop and pull out a book. “
âPaterson Readsâ, defended by the first lady, was an initiative. “The library would have book clubs, 50 book challenges for students,” the mayor said. “In conjunction with this, we have tried to increase the number of library subscriptions.”
There was also “The Big Read”, aimed at adults: a sort of Oprah’s book club. The idea was to get the whole town of Paterson – or as much as possible – to read and talk about the same book. “Our goal was to hire no less than 4,000 Patersonians,” said the mayor. “We wanted to give families in the city the opportunity to bond around books. We thought people would talk about it in barber shops and barbershops.”
The launch in February was promising: many people signed up to read “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines. On March 8, the Sayeghs had gathered 50 people at their home for a discussion about the book. âWe served coffee and cakes,â he said.
The following week all of America was closed.
So the Sayeghs and their book reading efforts had to migrate to the virtual world. As we all.
Still, Mayor Sayegh is happy to know that La Guardia got there first. There are worse mayors to model themselves on.
âI have always admired him,â he said. “My campaign was designed around solidarity, unity, one Paterson. La Guardia broke barriers, transcended race and religion. He is a great example to emulate.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please register or activate your digital account today.