Man of Letters

Best-selling Virginia author David Baldacci and his ongoing quest to help America learn to read.

Not all of David Baldacci’s awards have to do with his writing. His latest, the National Literacy Leadership Award from the National Coalition for Literacy, is all about reading. And the fact that it comes from the NCL—a 30-year-old nonprofit that advocates for improved funding and stronger policies for adult literacy—means a lot to Baldacci.  

“Our nation is based on reading and words and books and literacy,” says the 52-year-old author. “You can’t be an active participant in democracy if you can’t read.”

Baldacci accepted the award at the NCL’s awards ceremony on Capitol Hill in September. “I was happy to lend awareness and do what I could,” says Baldacci of his efforts to promote adult literacy, “but I know what the people in the trenches do when they sit down with people in prisons. Or refugees. Or someone in Appalachia who dropped out in 6th grade.” Those volunteer tutors, says Baldacci, “sit across the table and work, hour after hour, week after week, trying to teach people a skill that will improve their lives so much. I accept this award on their behalf. The real work happens with them, not me.”

But ProLiteracy, the international nonprofit organization that promotes literacy around the world, thinks Baldacci deserves praise too; they nominated him for the award. “David Baldacci not only puts his money where his mouth is through the foundation but also gets out and beats the bushes and raises awareness on Capitol Hill,” said the group’s spokesperson.

Through the Wish You Well Foundation—a nonprofit organization Baldacci started with his wife Michelle in 2002—the couple has created programs to meet the growing demand for literacy services. They include the Citizens for Adult Literacy and Learning, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one tutoring in Amherst County, and the Wayne Pike Adult Literacy group in Pennsylvania that teaches adults basic reading and writing skills. And while Baldacci is humble about his work and quick to thank others, he is able to use his star power to raise awareness in Washington, D.C. He is, according to ProLiteracy, a compelling voice for the centrality of literacy to American democracy.

Baldacci’s passion for adult literacy started early on in his career, at first just in Virginia, but he has now helped to fund programs in 45 states.

“When I started as a published writer, I’d get invited to a lot of events, either library sponsored, friends of the library events or some literacy organization. And someone would always come up and talk about being an adult learner, and how that had changed their lives,” he recalls. “I got that message hammered home a lot.”

In a statement on, the Baldaccis say there are “nearly 100 million people” in the U.S. today who are “literacy challenged”—unable to read or reading at a below-average level. Baldacci says he saw America becoming a nation in which there are more people who cannot read than who can, and knew he had to do something. “Once you have that tipping point, it’s really hard to reverse it,” he says. The programs his foundation has backed stretch from Falls Church down to Roanoke, and well beyond Virginia’s borders to towns in Oregon, Iowa, Alabama, Missouri and more. Since its start, the Reston-based foundation has made more than $750,000 in grants, most of which has been supplied by Baldacci and his wife. The foundation’s average grant is between $5,000 and $10,000.

Baldacci’s love of storytelling began as a boy in Richmond when his mom bought him a notebook and told him to start writing things down because, he says, “I never shut up.” From there he says he was hooked: “The difference between people who want to be writers and people who were meant to write is that that love of writing will get you through the inevitable hard times.”

Baldacci settled in Vienna in 1994, after getting what he calls a “breathtaking, surreal and absurd” advance for his first book, Absolute Power. His latest book, The Forgotten, featuring Army Special Agent John Puller (who was introduced in Baldacci’s book Zero Day in 2011) will hit bookstores on November 20. Then, for a writer who never seems to put his pen down, it’s on to the next project. “I’m halfway through the new book, which features Will Robie from The Innocent,” he says. And then the next, the children’s book he wrote to bring Scholastic’s hit 39 Clues series to a close—Cahills vs. Vespers: Book 6—is slated for a March 2013 release.

Baldacci is the author of 25 published novels, which have been translated into 45 languages and are sold in more than 80 countries, but he will soon be adding to his long list of credits. Late this year and early next year, Baldacci will be a consultant on the TNT television pilot “King and Maxwell,” based on his series of books featuring Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. “I will work with the show runner on details leading up to production, and I will be available to help with development of plots, vision for the character arcs and material we can use in future episodes,” he says. The series is being helmed by Shane Brennan, the man behind “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

Baldacci’s success as a writer, though, hasn’t changed the way he sees himself: He still considers himself a pragmatist.

“Even if you work hard and do everything right, it doesn’t mean that things will work out for you. In so many ways, it’s not a level playing field in this country,” he explains. “And the best we can do is to give people the skills they really need in order to create opportunities for themselves. The number one skill is to be able to read,” he says. “If they can’t do that, everything else doesn’t matter.”

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