Reading: A Seed to Success

Jennifer Bartell Boykin gave this speech on April 20, 2023 on the grounds of the Statehouse for the South Carolina State Library's annual Read-In event

Kids who read succeed. Words are like seeds.

We all know what happens with seeds. We put them in the ground and then plants and flowers grow. That’s what reading does for your mind. It helps it grow so you can transform into your best self. 

Let me tell you my story. 

I grew up in a small town called Johnsonville; it’s two hours away from here. We only had one stop light and more fields and woods than stores. My family didn’t travel outside of our area much, so, for me, reading was how I traveled to different worlds. Books I loved growing up included any Romana Quinby book, the R.L. Stein Goosebumps series, and so many more. 

Outside of school, I was surrounded by words. At home we had lots of books, newspapers, novels, and encyclopedias. My grandmother read the Bible often and told me stories about her life; we’ll come back to my grandmother soon. I visited our public library often. And all of these words inspired me to write my own words. I began writing poetry at the age of 13 and I have not stopped.

Kids who read succeed. Words are like seeds. Reading is like planting a seed. Those seeds need support to grow. They need the soil, they need the rain, they need the sun, they need someone to pull the weeds in order to grow. My support system was loving and caring adults who helped me, gave me books, and encouraged me: They were my grandmother, my parents, my teachers, librarians, and others. They gave me a safe space to be that quiet girl in the corner who was thinking and daydreaming. They provided the perfect environment for my mind to grow and explore. 

In high school, I remember reading the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was the first time I read a book with people who looked like me and talked like me. It was the first time I had ever seen myself in a book. It showed me what I had been missing as a reader, and gave me a pathway for my work as a writer. 

All of this reading, all of this support helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer. I remembered how I felt after reading a good book, and I wanted to use words to make people feel that way too. So I went to college and studied literature and creative writing. I became a journalist, and then a teacher and all the while I kept writing poems and stories. One day soon I will add the title librarian to the list. 

Kids who read succeed. Words are like seeds. Reading is like planting a seed. 

A song my grandmother would sing said this: All things are possible if you only believe. Let me tell you her story: she was born in 1911. Her grandmother was an enslaved person in this state. It was once illegal for my grandma’s grandma to learn how to read and write. All things are possible if you only believe. I’ll change it a little and say all things are possible if you only read. My granny used to also always say, “Get as much education as you can; it’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.” Reading is one of the easiest ways to learn new information. It is the foundation of any good education.  

I stand before you today as Poet Laureate of Columbia. A poet laureate is a poet who represents and promotes poetry for a region, and in my case the city of Columbia. I want you to know it took all of my years of reading Romana Quinby and listening to my grandmother to get to this point. I want you to know that I started as the seed of a little girl who was a bookworm, and I would not be here today without that start. I began like many of you: A child of South Carolina who loved reading, books, and words. 

Kids who read succeed. Words are like seeds. 
You want to travel somewhere: read. 
You want to learn new information: read. 
You want to be encouraged or inspired: read. 
You want to be an astronaut: read. 
You want to be a unicorn wrangler: read. 
You want to be a doctor: read.
You want to change the world: read. 
You want to build empathy: read. 
My point is: 
Read. Read. Read. Don’t ever stop reading. 

You will succeed. You must succeed. You are the future of South Carolina. We need you. Use reading as a seed, and watch, watch what wonders you can grow. 

Thank you.