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Want a Good Read? It’s in the Bag

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starting Monday, shoppers at Vicente Foods in Brentwood may find a pen pal among the potatoes, pears and parsley.

Stacked at checkouts will be about 700 brown grocery bags decorated by kindergartners through sixth-graders at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School. The kids have glued on letters that tell about books they’re reading and asking those who get the bags to write back and tell them what they like to read. They sign their first names and room numbers.

The Great Book Bag Caper was conceived by reading teacher Victoria Waller, both as a vehicle to encourage kids to read and as a way of forging a link between the school and the community and between generations.

In past years, Wise students marked National Children’s Book Week and Jewish Book Month, both of which are this month, by launching hundreds of helium balloons with notes attached. Replies came from as far away as Wisconsin.

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Then, in 1988, aware of the potential environmental damage from helium balloons, Waller abandoned the project.

A shame, she thought--no annual celebration of reading. But last year she hit on the grocery bag idea and took it to Jeff Schwartz, Vicente Foods manager, who right off said yes.

Here’s how it works: A checker or box person asks customers if they mind taking their food home in one of the bags and if they’ll write back. “About 70% say yes,” Schwartz says. “I’ve never had any negative comments.”

We read some of their letters from last year. Jason received a three-page letter from Goldie Moss, a writer, who counseled, “No matter how old you become, you will never be lonely or bored if books are your friends.” She told him she was reading Daniel Boorstin’s “The Creators.” She signed her letter, “Your new friend.”

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Ron had been reading about Thomas Jefferson and had put a picture of him on his bag. His pen pal, herself a Virginian, told of Jefferson’s genius and asked Ron, “Did you know that he invented a machine that let him sign two documents at one time?”

A Century City attorney wrote to Loni: “I decided to go to law school because I like to read and do research.” Books, she promised, “will open up whole new worlds to you.”

Other respondents wrote about favorite books from “War and Peace” to “Pride and Prejudice"--and about books they’d once loved: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, “Charlotte’s Web,” the Hardy Boys, “The Cat in the Hat.” Many offered advice, such as “Learn all you can now. It will make life a lot easier later.”

Waller’s second-graders have been writing letters about “Officer Buckle and Gloria,” a story they read in class about a policeman who can’t make kids listen to his safety talks until he hits on the idea of bringing along his police dog.

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First-graders have also been writing letters, including these:

“Dear friend: I like to play football. I love to read books. What books do you like to read?”

A skating enthusiast wrote, “I like to RLRBD. I know my NBRS.”

Last year, Waller took home one of the bags from the market. Her letter was from an older child at school. Waller wrote, “Come find me . . . " The girl did.

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A Real Southern Lady--Quirky Relatives and All

Bailey White, the down-home Southern humorist who delights city folk with her essays on small-town life on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was meeting a few of her fans at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena.

Because the store was being remodeled, there was no mike. Never mind, said White--those who couldn’t hear “won’t be missing much.” She’s not only self-effacing, she’s downright shy.

Surprise No. 2: That drawl that on radio sounds like that of an octogenarian schoolmarm belongs to a witty woman of 45.

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White had come--reluctantly--from Thomasville, Ga. (population 25,000) to autograph her new book, “Sleeping at the Starlite Motel,” a collection of essays populated by such hometowners as Mr. Bonzonio, “the Miss Havisham of clerical merchandise,” who sits among stacks of obsolete office machines watching black-and-white TV, and Aunt Belle, who trained an alligator to bellow on command.

White chose to read “Family Values,” a chapter about how plumbing disasters were so much classier before the rich became shabbily genteel. That was when her kin still lived grandly off the fortune amassed by her great-great-grandfather, a shoe polish magnate. With straight face, she related the story of her Great-Uncle Melville, who while bathing crashed through the dining room ceiling, landing in the tomato aspic at Aunt Eleanor’s ladies’ luncheon.

White swears that her stories are true. Her new book and her earlier one, “Mama Makes Up Her Mind,” are sold as nonfiction but, she acknowledges, there’s “a nebulous line” and, yes, there are “a lot of composites” among her characters.

Consider Aunt Rose, who hung her walls with floral scenes woven from hair of the dearly departed. And Mama, the mother with whom White lived until Mama died at 84.

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Mama ate road kill off Spode plates and lived in an 1850s house where the accumulated clutter included Uncle Ralph’s “walleyed, hunchbacked, one-legged stuffed turkey” and Great-Aunt Bertie’s lavender satin wedding shoes. (Even the family pets were bizarre. Consider Howard, an aged canary that was silent for 15 years before suddenly screeching, “Bleech!”)

Still, White insists, “I think you probably have relatives just as eccentric. I think we all do.”

And, she emphasizes, such folks are not unique to Dixie. She bristles a bit at being stereotyped as a Southern writer, at the very notion that Southern writing is a style (consider Faulkner and Capote, she says) and at the idea that “only Southerners can write vividly about strange people.”

White has taught first grade in Thomasville for 22 years, though she’s taken a year off to write a novel. Nothing’s changed, she says. “My students are not even aware their teacher has a life outside the classroom.”

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Although she guards her privacy zealously, we do know that she lived in Santa Barbara during an ill-fated 11-year marriage and that her father, the late Robb White, took off for Los Angeles when she was 8 and did well churning out scripts for B horror films.

White is equally adept at social commentary--deploring the conversion of old schoolhouses to “little craft shops reeking of potpourri"--and at describing Mama’s attempts to extricate a tick from under her pantyhose.

She’s a listener too. Having graciously fielded all questions from fans at Vroman’s, she smiled and asked, “Do y’all have anything you’d like to say?”

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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