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March 30, 2021

1,000 children’s books his answer to the pandemic

Photo/Michael Porterfield
“I’m not really a morning person,“ Michael Porterfield says. “I’ve got to have my coffee. Sometimes, it helps me get out of bed: ‘Hey, I’ve got to read this book today’.”
It’s just a wonderful relief from the horrible things that were going on, especially early (in the pandemic).
— Michele Weisbart, friend in Los Angles
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Suddenly working from his suburban home near Warrenton a year ago, the NASA graphic artist settled on a simple idea.

“At first, there was a lot of negativity” about the COVID-19 shutdown, Michael Porterfield recalled. “Some people said it was a hoax. I said, ‘We need something positive out there’.”

Mr. Porterfield picked up The Dr. Seuss Sleep Book, which he used to read to his 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son.

He flipped on his iPhone and began recording last March 30.

On this Thursday, April 1, he will complete a journey of 1,000 children’s books through the pandemic — each reading posted to YouTube and Facebook.

“I didn’t really have any aspirations,” Mr. Porterfield said. “It was just something to even out the negativity I was seeing.

“The best form of entertainment is storytelling.”

> Video at bottom of story

The son of a retired Prince William County librarian, he and his wife Veronica had about 200 children’s books in their home. But, that collection would prove insufficient, as he sometimes read two or three a day.

Naturally, Mr. Porterfield turned to the Fauquier County Public Library and began checking out dozens of children’s books at a time.

“Thankfully, the Fauquier library came out of quarantine before I ran out of books, and the staff at the Warrenton branch have been amazing in their help and support of my project,” he said. “They made suggestions on books to read when I wanted something topical or timely.

“They didn’t complain when I came two or three times per week and carted off four bags of books or had 125 books checked out at once. Eventually they offered to roll a trolly out to my car to make it easier.”

Library spokeswoman Lisa Pavlock said: “We are frankly thrilled to see someone make such an effort to reach out to kids, particularly during the pandemic.

“I was a little bit floored at first” by the volume of books he borrowed, Ms. Pavlock admitted. “But, it makes perfect sense . . . . We’re certainly happy to help, and hopefully it will make other people think about reading with children.”

Mr. Porterfield started reading inside, but the videos “sounded kind of tinny.” So, he moved outside, and the veteran photographer bought a phone bracket for his tripod.

His videos chronicle weather, the change of seasons on his two-acre lot, planes passing overhead and the occasional encounter with fellow life forms, such as “a bumble bee chasing me.”

His headgear has ranged from ball caps to a fedora and do-rags to a natty snap-brim chapeau.

Most of the books go well beyond Dick and Jane, with life lessons about choices and consequences, kindness and growth.

“I have not missed one day of posting a story,” the 46-year-old Fauquier High and George Mason University graduate said. “I think some days, when I wasn’t feeling it,” reading a book “helped me.

“I’m not really a morning person. I’ve got to have my coffee. Sometimes, it helps me get out of bed: ‘Hey, I’ve got to read this book today’.”

His wife, children Zoey and Phillip, and his mother also have pitched in to read for the series, which has surpassed more than 100 hours of video.

The series includes readings in country, Jewish, Mexican, Russian and Scottish accents.

The shortest video runs just over a minute, the longest about 25 minutes.

“It’s just a wonderful relief from the horrible things that were going on, especially early” in the pandemic, said Michele Weisbart, a Los Angeles graphic designer who met Mr. Porterfield years ago at a conference.

Ms. Weisbart estimates she has watched 30 of his videos, including This is Sadie, which he read for Passover. As a result, she bought the book for her year-old grandniece of the same name.

“I think what he’s doing is just amazing,” Ms. Weisbart said.

Lifelong friend Heide Molinaro has a similar take.

The pandemic has forced “people to slow down and appreciate the things they have — books in their homes, board games, learning to cook,” said Ms. Molinaro, who teaches high school art in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

For Mr. Porterfield, the best rewards come when viewers send him photos of their children reading books.

He will finish the project this week.

Among other things, it has helped him appreciate the variety of nature in his backyard, Mr. Porterfield said.

“I have learned that I think I want to publish my own children’s book . . . about a Saguaro cactus,” he said.

“I think (the shutdown) would have been worse without the stories . . . If your angry, what do you do? If you’re sad, how do you deal with that? Or, you make a poor decision.”

Children’s books — often beautifully illustrated — address those topics.

“It’s kinda like Looney Tunes” cartoons, created for children but still compelling to older audiences, he said.

Contact Editor “Lou” Emerson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

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