A nationwide "drive for literacy" made a stop in Los Angeles Friday, as Mayor James K. Hahn, a publisher, an automobile company and others lent their support to a massive distribution of children's books.
"Vroomaloom!" the mayor said, imitating the rumble of a car as he read aloud to children gathered for the event in Hancock Park.
Hahn joined representatives from Random House Children's Books; First Book, a nonprofit children's literacy group; and Ford's Mercury division, based in Irvine, as part of a national distribution of free books to children from low-income families.
More than 1 million books were donated by Random House for the drive. Mercury also donated $1 million to the campaign. The book tour has covered 30 U.S. cities and is expected to hit 60 cities in all 50 states by the end of summer.
"It's not just books at schools, but books that kids can take home with them," Hahn said. "We hope this helps them learn at a very early age."
Nationwide, fewer than a third of fourth-grade students read at their grade level. Recent assessments, such as the Stanford 9 standardized test, have shown that reading scores are improving in many urban school districts, including Los Angeles Unified.
But literacy is still a critical issue, Hahn said. "[Reading] is the way you have a key to the world and the future," he said.
In California, 20,000 books will be distributed through the campaign.
"For all kids, reading falls off in the summer," said Kyle Zimmer, president of First Book. "It's a big problem for all kids, but it's a bigger problem for kids who are from families who are struggling."
Seven-year-old Joshua Vargas clutched his shiny new book, "Vroomaloom Zoom" by John Coy. The book, distributed by Random House Friday to about 50 children from the Friendship Children's Center in Wilmington, is full of colorful images and playful words such as "whoo hoo" and "splash, dash, wave, crash."
"I can read all the time," Joshua said, before listing his favorite books: "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Star Wars."
His father, Oscar Vargas, 34, said his three children love books, but he wishes he had more time to read with them. His children go through books so quickly, it's difficult to buy them new ones regularly, he said.
"[Often] parents don't get involved with kids and encourage them to read a lot," Vargas said. "We try to buy books, and we try to go to the library."
Vargas said he hoped the free books would give families an incentive to read with their children.
Zimmer said reading can enhance test scores and learning and strengthen families as they work on skills together.
"The implications of something so simple as a book [are] really profound," she said.