A longtime resident of Chapel Hill, Daniel Wallace (who penned Big Fish: A Novel of Epic Proportions, which director Tim Burton made into a 2003 movie of the same name) was once the assistant director for the literacy council in that city.
“I was in my 20s. It was a fluke, really,” says the author, who now writes and teaches writing at UNC Chapel Hill. “I’d never done anything with literacy, but that was the beginning of my devotion to this effort.”
On Friday, Oct. 25, Wallace will deliver the keynote address at the Literacy Council of Buncombe County’s 12th annual Authors for Literacy event.
Wallace still hosts the Orange County council’s annual fundraiser, but when he worked for the organization, the job he enjoyed the most was pairing students with volunteer tutors. “That was the icing,” he says. And he compares his work as a teacher of writing to his work with literacy.
“It is much the same job,” he says. “Different people, for whatever reason, whether it’s cultural or economic, are kept from the recognition of, and the realization of, how powerful language can be for us, once we can use it as a tool: sharing the power of words with other people, alerting them to their value. That’s what I do in different stages every day.”
In Buncombe County, according to LuAnn Arena, development director of the local Literacy Council, 1 in 10 adults can’t read at a basic level. “It’s an equity issue,” she says. “If someone can’t read instructions from their doctor or notes from their children’s teachers, they’re just not going to have a good chance of making it.” The effects of illiteracy are stark: 2 out of 5 adults who can’t read or write at a basic level live in poverty, and children of parents with low literacy have almost a 3-in-4 chance of also reading at the lowest literacy level.
The Literacy Council exists to combat these problems. Instructors on the council’s staff train tutors who then instruct adults one on one, and other volunteer tutors offer tutoring and other assistance in schools for low-income children who are having trouble with literacy, and — through a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program — give participating children a free book every month.
The council also holds English classes for speakers of other languages. Currently, this program serves 250 adults in Buncombe County who want to improve their English skills and prepare for their citizenship exams. (“To be able to watch someone achieve that goal — to be present at the swearing-in ceremony — is a dream,” says Arena.)
The Authors for Literacy event is one of the main ways the council funds this work. This year’s iteration will include a cocktail hour with a silent auction, a three-course dinner, a presentation by one of the Literacy Council’s students, and, at the end of the evening, the keynote by Wallace. (“He’s going to delight everyone,” Arena says). All proceeds will go to support the council, whose small, full-time staff is dedicated to giving everyone a chance to read.
Arena acknowledges that illiteracy is “kind of a hidden issue because of the shame that’s created when being able to read is something people expect.” Still, she finds the work rewarding and mentions a recent success story for the council: a man in his 40s who, thanks to work with a tutor, is now able to read to his child for the first time.
For his part, Wallace emphasizes the importance of the work being done by the students. “We have a well-worn idea of what a person who can’t read or write might be like,” he says, but adds that many don’t fit the stereotype. “There are business owners, there are people whose lives are circumscribed by not being able to read, but somehow manage to get by without it.” And yet they feel compelled to make a change.
“It’s this essential bravery that allows them to admit that their lives could be better,” Wallace says. “To me, it’s an exercise in valor.”
WHAT: Author Daniel Wallace keynotes the Authors for Literacy Dinner and Silent Auction
WHERE: Crowne Plaza Resort Expo Center, 1 Resort Drive
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 25, 6 p.m. $95. avl.mx/6l7