The Reading Promise

My Father and the Books We Shared


By Alice Ozma

Foreword by Jim Brozina

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When Alice Ozma was in 4th grade, she and her father decided to see if he could read aloud to her for 100 consecutive nights. On the hundreth night, they shared pancakes to celebrate, but it soon became evident that neither wanted to let go of their storytelling ritual. So they decided to continue what they called “The Streak.” Alice’s father read aloud to her every night without fail until the day she left for college.

Alice approaches her book as a series of vignettes about her relationship with her father and the life lessons learned from the books he read to her.

Books included in the Streak were: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare’s plays.


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Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

Copyright Page


This is a book about people.

This is a book about the living, breathing creatures in the world around us who need our love. This is a book about how books can bring people together, and how that bond can last a lifetime. There are no in-depth discussions of symbolism, no characters are painstakingly analyzed, and no one stops what they are doing to ponder the meaning of a line or a phrase while riding a roller coaster, eating a sandwich, or dancing to a swing band. My father and I did these things, and perhaps they could have made for a good book. But it is not this book.

This book is about the act of reading, and the time spent doing it. This book is about the 3,218 nights my father and I spent reading anything and everything we could find. The books are important, but the conversations they started, and the bonds they created, are what really matter.

The titles may be familiar. The conversations may remind you of your own. For many of you, this could be a trip down memory lane. But if you haven't read a single book that we read, or you tend to fall asleep before you can finish a chapter—even if you've never been read to and never read to another person, this book is for you, too.

When I remember the promise I made to and with my father, the books are key players. But the star was, and always will be, the man who read them and the devotion he showed me by reading them aloud.

This book is about the quilt of our lives, and all the patches—some tattered, some vibrant—woven together by the books we read. This book is about remembering what you were reading when your sister moved away, but also remembering what that last hug felt like. This book is about remembering the words on the pages, but never forgetting whose head was on your shoulder while you read them. This book is about growth, and change, and fear, and hope, and triumph, and yes, books. It is about all of those things, because reading never is, and never can be, just about the characters and the plots.

Reading to someone is an act of love. This book is, above all else, a love story.


Day 1

"I am terribly afraid of falling, myself," said the Cowardly Lion, "but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it. So get on my back and we will make the attempt."

—L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

It started on a train. I am sure of it. The 3,218-night reading marathon that my father and I call The Streak started on a train to Boston, when I was in third grade. We were reading L. Frank Baum's The Tin Woodman of Oz, the twelfth book in the beloved Oz series, a few hours into our trip. The woman across the aisle turned to us and asked why my father was reading to me on a train. We simply told her that this was what we always did—he had been reading to me every night for as long as I could remember, ever since we read Pinocchio when I was four. Being on vacation didn't make much of a difference. Why not read? Why not always read?

But her surprise made us think. If we were going to read on vacation anyway, how hard could it be to make reading every night an official goal? I suggested to my father that we aim for one hundred consecutive nights of reading, and he agreed to the challenge. This is how I remember it.

If you ask my father, though, as many people recently have, he'll paint an entirely different picture.

"Lovie," he tells me, as I patiently endure his version of the story, "you're cracked in the head. Do you want to know what really happened or are you just going to write down whatever thing comes to mind?"

Lovie, as I'm sure you can guess, is not my real name. Alice is, but only sort of. My full name is Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina, but I don't care for Kristen. Alice and Ozma are names my father chose from literature, names I would later choose for myself. It's a decision that took a long time, but one I'm very happy I made. Those names always felt like my real names to me, as I'll explain later. Also, Lovie is not the affectionate pet name you might think it is. As are all things in my father's vocabulary, it is a reference to something—this time it's Mr. Howell's nickname for Mrs. Howell on Gilligan's Island. My father never calls me by my name; Lovie is his most commonly chosen alternative. But when I drop something, or forget something, or do any of the silly things we all manage to do on a regular basis, "Lovie" is often followed by phrases such as "you nitwit!"

"So tell me then," I say, standing in his doorway as he gets ready to run errands.

"Well, when did Mom leave?" he asks.

"I was ten."

"All right, so 1997 it started. The Streak was a year old when she left."

"And what were we reading?"

"Well," he says thoughtfully, "it had to be an Oz book. That's what we were into around that time. I wanted to try other things, but you were set in your ways."

So far, we agree. But I know this won't last long.

"We were on the bed, we'd just finished reading," he says, "and I was fearing the Curse of Mr. Henshaw."

"What is that curse?"

"Dear Mr. Henshaw was the book I was reading to Kathy when she asked me to stop reading to her," he says in an almost whisper.

It is clear that this memory, though nearly two decades old, still troubles him. My sister was in fourth grade when she said she no longer wanted my father to read to her. It seemed childish to her, especially since she was already reading novels on her own. But it wasn't so easy for my father. He was an elementary school librarian, and reading to children was what he liked to do best. And maybe next to being a father, it's also what he does best. His soothing voice and rehearsed facial expressions have won over thousands of children throughout his career. They won me over, too, but I was already on his side.

"For some time, I'd been planning to suggest to you that we do a streak, because then at least you'd be a little older when we stopped reading together. I brought it up, and honest to Pete, I thought you were going to say we should read a hundred nights in a row!" He laughs as he recalls this. I don't laugh because I think I did suggest a hundred nights in a row. Initially.

"No," he continues, "Right away you said, 'Let's do one thousand!' And I had to pretend to be enthusiastic, of course, but I wasn't too optimistic. One thousand nights is a long time."

I have to stop him there. None of this sounds right to me. First I remind him that our goal had been one hundred nights. When we reached that goal, however, and celebrated with a pancake breakfast at the local greasy spoon, we decided to set a new goal. We skipped the discussions of lower options, from two hundred to five hundred, and ultimately decided to try for one thousand nights. I tell him this, but he just shakes his head. When I try to explain that The Streak actually began on the train, he cuts me off.

"Ah, the Curious Incident of the Train in the Nighttime!" he says, adapting the title of one of our favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.

"I remember that part clearly," he continues, "because I never miss an opportunity to brag about what a good father I am. We were on the train to Boston, going up to see the sights for a weekend, and the woman next to us said how sweet it was that I was reading to you. I told her right away that we were on a streak, forty nights in! I was pleased with myself, absurdly pleased with myself, pleased as a peacock to have made it forty nights."

We both laugh this time, but I am laughing partly because I know he is wrong. The train was the first night. Obviously.

The thing is, no matter how many times we are asked, we can never get this story straight. We agree on a few of the details, but I was very young and he is getting older. Some memories blend together with others, and our individual versions of how The Streak started change so often, it is nearly impossible to come to any sort of agreement. We can't even remember when we started calling it The Streak, or whose idea it was to do so. If we knew it would eventually reach over thirty-two hundred nights and span almost nine years, from elementary school to my first day of college, we might have taken notes in the beginning. Years passed before we even started keeping track of the books we read during Read Hot (pronounced "Red Hot"—another term for our nightly addiction, phrasing we found in The Great Gilly Hopkins).

Just because we didn't know how it would end, though, didn't mean we took our Streak lightly. Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read for at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, every night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn't there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely. I could always hear the annoyance in my father's voice when I called to inform him that I was sleeping at a friend's. He'd sigh and put down the phone, and I'd wait for him to go get our book. Sometimes, he'd ask me to call back in ten minutes.

"I haven't even preread it yet!" he'd protest. He insisted on rehearsing (and with more adult books, sometimes censoring) our reading ahead of time.

We remember details from later in The Streak better, both because they are more recent and because our record was becoming more impressive. Once we reached over a thousand nights, close calls and readings at quarter to midnight became more nail-biting issues. Of course we both remember how it eventually ended. That's the sort of event even my father can't forget, an event we dreaded for years. To get there, though, we need a beginning, and frankly I don't know what that beginning is.

I think I was leaning against him, in the crook of his arm, with my head on his chest, as our train to Boston sped past houses and schools and baseball fields that became colorful blurs. We were already dedicated to L. Frank Baum and the Oz books—in fact, we were reading the entire series for the second, or maybe third, time. My father loved Baum's take on leadership and women, not to mention his spot-on, frank humor that made us laugh a little harder every time we reread something. I liked the wonderful descriptions of beautiful places, like palaces and magnificent dining rooms filled with people and good food. Whenever we stayed in a hotel, which we were about to in Boston, I wondered if it was like the palace of Glinda or Rinkitink. That night, as my father read the description of the palace in the Emerald City, with its marvelous banners and gem-encrusted turrets, I squirmed eagerly in my seat, excited to get to the Marriott and check in.

I review this, and my father shakes his head.

"That's how I remember it," my father insists, after repeating his story of the beginning, now for the third time today, the details varying just a bit each time. But then he sighs.

"Problem with my remembrances, though," he admits, "is that they're always so goofed up."

I sit for a minute, comparing my notes on both versions of the story, seeing what they have in common. I am about to begin my argument once more, since simply repeating something over and over again sometimes convinces my dad that I am right (or at least wears him out). He knows I'm getting riled up, though, because his back is already to me as I'm about to begin my diatribe.

"I'm going to go look for treasures in the coat closet," my father says, heading down the stairs.

I'm not sure if this is a saying I'm expected to know or a literal plan, but it's apparent that the conversation is over. I didn't think we'd come to an agreement, anyway.

But this is how I remember it.


Day 38

"I can swim," said Roo, "I fell into the river, and I swimmed. Can Tiggers swim?"

"Of course they can. Tiggers can do everything."

—A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Seated at the center of Benjamin Franklin Memorial Hall in Philadelphia is a twenty-foot-tall statue of the man himself, looking a bit world-weary but still curious. I stood in front of him, a familiar face after years of membership at the Franklin Institute, but I looked past him; today, we were watching the sky.

At the center of the domed ceiling, eighty-two feet above our heads, a man was hanging with one arm from a red ribbon, swaying softly like a wind chime in the breeze. The room was silent—or at least I was. The latter was rare; my father smiled with surprise. The strange man's muscles, visible through his bright leotard, pulsed and contracted. Even eighty feet below him, I could see sweat dropping from his forehead. But his face stayed perfectly still. His smile, distant and serene, was unmistakably rehearsed. To me, that made it even better. I loved showmanship. He was not a child trying acrobatics for fun. He was a professional, going to work as usual, executing his moves, if not with joy, with precision and grace. He was being paid to create beauty, and he was doing it well.

"Is this why we came here?" I asked. We were members at a slew of Philadelphia museums and visited them every Saturday, but today we were early to the Franklin Institute. He nodded.

I saw the connection, even if my father hadn't intended one. Since we'd started our Streak just a few short weeks ago, it had felt like we were in the middle of a balancing act. What we were doing was beautiful, of course, but it was difficult. Sometimes I was tired, really tired, like last Saturday when we got back from a day trip to Baltimore so late that I'd barely been able to keep my eyes open. I struggled my way through my father's reading of the final pages of James and the Giant Peach, and then made him reread those pages the next night, because I thought I'd dreamed them. But really, I hadn't—there was just something about Roald Dahl books that made everything seem like a dream. The vivid colors, the underlying darkness that sometimes hinted at despair. The ending seemed just a bit too happy to fit the rest of the book, but I wasn't one to complain about a happy ending.

"Would you ever do that?" my father asked, pointing a finger to show me just how high up the man in the strange outfit really was. I replied without even taking my eyes off of the man.

"Of course," I said. "Who wouldn't?"

"Plenty of people. This man knows what he's doing, but it's still risky. Are you sure you would go up there? What if you fell? You'd crack your head open. Your brains would go mish-mash splish-splash all over the marble, and they'd ask me to clean it up."

I looked at the man in the sky. He seemed to be hard at work, but tireless. The movements came as fluidly twenty minutes into the routine as they did in the first seconds, if not more so. I looked at the hundred or more people standing beside us, looking up.

"If I died," I said finally, cheerfully, "everybody would be watching me."

He laughed. We stood for a few more minutes with our necks craned upward. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn't decide if we were all cheering for the man or secretly waiting for him to fall. Would it be such a bad way to die, though, with a crowd of people watching you do what you loved?

But then I imagined what it would be like to have people watching you do everything you loved. We loved to read, and The Streak was going well so far, in the sense that we were enjoying ourselves and we hadn't missed a night. But I liked that it was private, something we did at home with no one watching, something that no one knew about. I hadn't even told my friends yet. I was confident that we could make it to one hundred nights—it even sounded easy. But my father was less sure, and that made me nervous. At least no one had to see us if we fell. Not like this man. If he fell, everyone would see. He'd die doing what he loved, yes, but everyone would see him fall. Not that it really seemed like he might. He was working hard and sweating profusely, but he knew what he was doing. Like us.

I noticed a small contraption up there with him suspended from the highest point of the dome—a shiny silver thing like a miniature airplane. It fascinated me. At first I thought it was just a theatrical set. He was playing a character, maybe a pilot who decided to pause his plane midair and jump out to hang from the clouds. But then I noticed that the plane too was swaying, only much more softly than the man, a motion hardly noticeable but somehow hypnotic. My eyes shifted from the man to the plane. I was waiting for something to happen, but I wasn't sure what. Was the plane going to fly? And after watching a man dangle over our heads on a handkerchief, would flight really be so impressive?

A flash of color in the miniature windows. Someone, or something, was inside. The routine seemed to be nearing an end, but the man reached for the door. A woman, dressed in beautiful peacock colors, unfolded herself from a tiny seat and sprung to meet him. I gasped. Was she up there all along? Why did he make her wait in that tiny plane, wound up like thread, while he had the whole ceiling to explore? It seemed a little selfish. More than anything, though, it was foolish; she was absolutely beautiful.

She danced with him, a silent and intense duet. When she hung from his hand, not once but three times throughout the routine, I saw that she trusted him. I wouldn't have, if he'd kept me in a box while everyone was watching him. But when they finished, I clapped. For her.

We headed to eat our lunch, peanut butter sandwiches from home, in the High Place. It was our secret spot, a seat hidden in plain sight at the top of a staircase overlooking the atrium. The High Place was perfect for people watching, which we both loved. Distracted by a boy yo-yoing as we mounted the stairs, I tripped on my shoelaces.

"You clumsy she-ape!" my dad said affectionately, as he helped me to my feet.

"They'd no sooner get you up on that plane than you'd be tearing out of the sky face-first. I wouldn't have time to catch you, you know. Even if I did, you would crush me."

"I could do it," I said after he handed me my sandwich. I tried to pick the chunks out of the chunky peanut butter he insisted we eat.

"I mean, the woman up there was much better than the man," I continued. "It comes naturally to us."

I knew I had him there. My father was and is a devout feminist, if for no other reason than having two daughters. Female leaders were endlessly impressive to him. At this point in The Streak, we still hadn't gotten much further than rereading the Oz books. Those lovely female rulers, level-headed and kind (not to mention beautiful), were some of the first literary friends we'd made together. He applauded strong women, especially those with wits and a little sass. Even though I was regularly wearing my shirts backward and had recently cut off one of my eyebrows with the kitchen scissors, he was sure that I was capable of great things, as all women are. I rattled on.

"Yes, the woman was really the whole act. The man didn't know what he was doing until she got there. The man was just sweating and spinning. She pulled it all together."

We took a moment to congratulate ourselves on our elevated seating and strong people-watching skills when we were able to spot, far across the room and behind some large signs, the trapeze artist himself, taking a new wardrobe out of a closet. To this day I do not know why a science museum hired an acrobat to dance across their ceiling, but they must have been impressed with his work, because he seemed to be preparing for a second show.

"I'll go talk to him," my father said.

I shrugged and continued picking at my sandwich. I hated chunky peanut butter almost more than I hated the way the sandwiches got mushy and sweaty after being wrapped in tinfoil and left at the bottom of our canvas travel bag for hours. And I still had not been able to convince my father that the bread on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was not typically buttered, least of all heavily and on both sides. I had just decided to try to suck the jelly out and leave the rest of the lumpy mess for him to tackle when my father returned, smiling.

"Well," he said, as he hoisted himself back up to the seat, "It looks like you might get your chance."

Thinking he meant that we were going to eat in the museum's cafeteria for once, my dimples creased my sticky cheeks. I sat up a little straighter.


"Yes," he said, "It's all settled. I just talked to that man, he seems like a great guy, and he was worried sick because his wife's having some kind of gut pains. He thinks she might not be able to make the next show. Well, I told him right away that you'd already made cameos in two high school plays, and you're great in front of a crowd, and not scared to go up at all. He was so relieved! He's checking to see if they have a costume in your size. If they don't, I guess you'll have to go up in your street clothes."

I looked at my faded T-shirt. Many of the embroidered green stars were now hidden under globs of purple jelly. But this was not my main concern.

"Did he really say that?" I asked cautiously. My father could keep a great straight face. This could be a joke.

"Well, of course he was a little surprised when I told him you were nine. But once he heard about all your experience, and how great you are in the spotlight, I think he calmed down. Really, what choice does he have?"

He shook his head like it was a done deal.

I considered. Yes, I had been excited to go up, ready and willing, but I hadn't expected to go up without practice. This man obviously had lots of practice; he could do the routine all while keeping that same frozen smile. I needed a frozen smile, and that would take time—at least a few hours. If my father could insist, as he always did, that he needed time to practice reading a simple chapter from a book before sharing it with me, a quick rehearsal before risking my life seemed warranted.

"When is the next show?"

My father checked his watch.

"One," he replied, and then pointed at my sandwich. "So you'd better shovel it in."

The idea of eating, let alone "shoveling in" the mushy mess before me made me queasy.

"I don't think I'm ready," I said, "I need practice."

"He said he'd talk you through the whole routine before you start. It sounded pretty easy. And remember, the woman came out later on. You can watch him while he performs the second time and pick up tips. Get an idea for how he does it."

"What if I can't fit in that tiny plane?"

"You're a little thing," he replied, "she's a full-grown adult. If she can fit, you can fit."

He ate in silence for a few minutes. I slid my sandwich behind me and rustled through the bag until I found some cheese crackers, which I munched thoughtfully.

"Eat with your mouth closed!" my father barked after my first bite. Open-mouthed chewing was one of his biggest annoyances. "You can hang by one hand in front of a hundred people or more, but you can't hold your lips shut while you eat cheese crackers?"

I held my lips shut and continued thinking. I wasn't scared to go up if I knew what I was doing, and I could figure it out quickly enough, but I needed at least a dress rehearsal on the ground before I attempted the real thing. How could two adults, two men with jobs and wives (even if my mother and father were rapidly losing interest in each other) and an interest in science museums, expect a child to perform acrobatics midair without at least a quick dress rehearsal? It was absurd. I wouldn't do it. I'd decided.

"There he is!" my father shouted, as the performer walked by again, this time in a different costume. "I'll go talk to him. Finish your sandwich before I take it from you!"

He headed down the stairs and disappeared into the crowd, which was much thicker now that school groups were flooding the atrium for lunch. I slid down from my perch, tinfoil-wrapped mess in hand, and scraped all but a few crumbs into the nearest trash can. As any picky-eating, low-appetite, food-wasting kid knows, a clean plate is too obvious. You have to leave a few crumbs, and you have to have some on your face. I had that covered. I settled back into my seat just as my dad was approaching again.

"No luck," he called, shaking his head as he climbed back up. "They couldn't find a costume in your size that didn't have sweat stains on it, and then his wife got her strength back at the last minute."

"Oh really?" I replied. "That's a shame, I was going to go up."

In that moment, I decided it was true. It was a great opportunity. Practice would have made me better, sure, of course, but that didn't mean I wasn't ready to go up now. I could have figured it out as I went along. That's what we'd been doing for the past few weeks, making progress every night as I snuggled up next to him in his great big bed and listened to the books he considered classics. We'd been trying for something that seemed impossible and making it up as we went. It was working for us.

"Yes," I continued with great certainty, "I would have been glad to help. If they really needed me. Or even if they didn't. If there was a costume in my size, I would have gone up. Other kids would have liked seeing a kid up there. And I'd be good at it, I bet."

My father smiled.

"I bet," he repeated.

"Maybe next time."

"Maybe next time," he repeated, pulling another sandwich from the bag and placing it on my lap.


Day 100

Mary was an odd, determined little person, and now she had something interesting to be determined about, she was very much absorbed, indeed.

—Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

My father closed the book with a sense of finality, despite the fact that we had a night or two worth of reading left. We'd made quite a dent in Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. The book was a short little paperback about a boy who was reading a guide to life improvement that featured some truly bizarre advice. In last night's reading, the guide prompted the boy to put a piece of broccoli on a string around his neck, and we'd howled with laughter at the idea that something so silly could actually change someone's life. Even after we'd closed it, we stayed nestled under the covers of his bed, laughing and talking about the strange guide. Tonight's chapter was just as funny, maybe even more so, but when we finished there was no laughter—well, not at first. We sat in silence for a moment or two, smiling. Then out of excitement, I did start giggling. He laughed too, but I'm not sure what he thought we were laughing about. The uncertainty made it even funnier, so we laughed until we found our way back to silence. When we sat quietly again, the air had an odd ring to it, as though it too didn't quite know what to feel. After all the anticipation and nerves, the balancing act we'd been doing, here we were. We had finished one hundred nights of reading. We had met our goal.

"What should we do to celebrate?" my father asked.

Neither of us could think of anything. We were happy, very happy, but we never did much celebrating. Years later, when my sister got into Yale, my father bought her one medium pizza from Papa John's. Which really should not have been a surprise, considering what my father eventually suggested to recognize our reading achievement.

"Let's go to Flick's in the morning," he said, sounding surprisingly excited. Well, the excitement was only surprising if you'd been to Flick's.


  • "Persuasive and influential, poignant and inspirational, Ozma's exuberant paean to the joys and rewards of reading-- and being read to-- is a must-read treasure for parents, especially, and bibliophiles, certainly." -Booklist, starred review
  • "This is the perfect book to hand any curmudgeon who needs reminding that reading makes a difference or thinks that today's youth are all blase. Highly recommended." -Library Journal, starred review
  • "Ozma's work is humorous, generous, and warmly felt, and with a terrific reading list included, there is no better argument for the benefits of reading to a child than this rich, imaginative work." -Publisher's Weekly
  • "A warm memoir and a gentle nudge to parents about the importance of books, quality time and reading to children." -Kirkus Reviews
  • "Alice Ozma has given us the gift of a remarkable love story. In her love of books, and of her father, we see the most-meaningful promises we might make to our own parents, our own children, and to ourselves." -Jeffrey Zaslow, coauthor, The Last Lecture
  • "Tender, funny, and deeply readable, THE READING PROMISE tells the story of how a simple ritual became a treasured father-daughter tradition. Promise yourself to revisit what matters...promise you'll pick up this tribute to the ways in which books change lives." - Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine's Bookshelf
  • This is about so much more than books and reading. It's about single-parenthood and childhood, about raising a loving, witty, articulate kid, and all of it accomplished without anyone turning into the Alpha-Parent/Tiger-Dad. -Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook
  • "THE READING PROMISE is a powerful testament to the difference a parent's devotion and the act of reading can make in a child's life. A rare and triumphant story." - Chris Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Pursuit of Happyness

On Sale
May 3, 2011
Page Count
304 pages

Alice Ozma

About the Author

Alice Ozma, a recent Rowan University graduate, currently lives in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia, PA. She is passionate about literature, education, and working with children. Find out more about this author by visiting her website:

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