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education reformer, reader of children’s books

Jonathan Kozol

Jonathan Kozol meant to become a novelist but ended up a maverick education reformer. Not that he put down his pen. The Cambridge resident’s newest book “Fire in the Ashes” is due out Aug. 28, from which he’ll read Sept. 19 at the Harvard Memorial Chapel at 7:30.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

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KOZOL: Since my new book brings all the children I’ve written about for the past 25 years up to date, I’ve had to reread my last five books. It’s no fun. I already know them pretty well and I sweated out every one of them. I also read when I’m writing to restore my spirits. Lately I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of children’s books. To me, some are every bit as insightful and moving as an allegedly grownup book.

BOOKS: What are some of your favorites?

KOZOL: I recently reread “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I love that. One of my favorites is “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes and Luara Hamilton. Actually a fourth-grade student put me on to that book. It’s a delectable story of an irreverent girl. I was reading it on a plane to California, and the man next to me kept giving me strange looks. He was reading the Wall Street Journal. I said, “I’ll trade with you. This book might change your soul.”

BOOKS: Do you have favorites from your childhood?

KOZOL: I still reread “The House at Pooh Corner” by A.A. Milne. I love that. Eeyore is one of the great tragic figures of literature, a donkey without a tail. With all the teaching to the test mania now, kids can’t read “Winnie the Pooh” for the joy of it anymore. They have to excavate the 10 points that the book illustrates. They are killing A.A.Milne. I tell children the best reason to read a book is not the numbers it will give you on an exam but for the joy of it. That’s why grownups read books.

BOOKS: Did reading play a role in any of the lives of the kids you’ve written about?

KOZOL: A boy I met when he was 12, Jeremy, never saw a standardized test he couldn’t fail. Meanwhile he read voraciously. He was immersed in Edgar Allen Poe. He read Mark Twain and started reading Charles Dickens. I introduced him to the headmaster of a New England boarding school. He did well and got into a good liberal arts college, where he majored in English literature. He’s a teacher now.

BOOKS: Do you read grownup books too?

KOZOL: I do but almost never bestsellers. I’m 75 and want to use what time I have to read my favorite classics. I go back and read a lot of poetry by John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Yates, and W. H. Auden.

BOOKS: What novelists are on that list?

KOZOL: Graham Greene. There are only five books that I really love. One is “The Heart of the Matter.” Another is “The Power and the Glory.” The only modern American novelist who really matters to me is William Faulkner. “The Sound and the Fury” is the one I love the best. His books aren’t fun to read. There’s one writer I read who is not as difficult as Faulkner, the French writer Georges Simenon. The books are amusingly unpredictable short mysteries. They take place in Parisian neighborhoods I lived in during my 20s for three years.

BOOKS: You met a lot of famous writers then. Did they influence your reading?

KOZOL: I don’t know if it was William Styron or another author but someone persuaded me to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” in one winter. I drank quite a lot of cheap wine to get through those books. To this day I’m not sure what “Finnegans Wake” is about.

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