Patricia Rust is a dreamer. Among her dreams: that every child would be able to read, and enjoy doing so.
Right now, her dream is based on one children's book, a Web site, a schedule of readings and public appearances and an organization, the not-for-profit Rust Foundation, which operates out of her laptop computer.
A screenwriter, Rust has long divided her time between Hawai'i, where her parents moved 27 years ago, and California, where she has campaigned for literacy.
Her 4-year-old book, "The King of Skittledeedoo," (Rust Foundation, $15) came about after she read some dismaying statistics about literacy in Hawai'i and California "the only two places I've ever lived," she said.
"One out of four high school students graduates with marginal reading skills. Two million Americans are functionally illiterate," she said. "That's as many as watch 'Oprah' every day."
The Web site, www.powerforkids.com, came next, to help children, parents and teachers engage with books and reading.
She says her book is based on a stray fact she learned in a Hawaiian culture class: that King Kamehameha I wanted to learn to read. Although there are a few Hawaiian touches in her book, it's not set in the Islands but in a made-up kingdom called Skittledeedoo, a word that Rust says invariably makes children laugh because it's so long and silly.
Illustrated by Rust's friend San Wei Chan, a Warner Bros. Studio animator, the book tells the story of a king left with nothing but a towel around his waist when his castle burns down. His people can't be sure he's really the king, now that he lacks his robes and crown, so they give him a little spelling test. But, alas! The king can't even spell the name of his kingdom.
"I wanted to make a character that the children could relate to, a situation that was kind of funny, but in which the character had to learn to read, write and spell," said Rust, who lives in Hawai'i now. "I wanted him to become an icon for learning."
The jolly king with his bright "jelly-bean nose" is host of her Web site, encouraging children to read the story, write their own poems about Skittledeedoo (the book is rhymed) or create words.
"Most literacy programs are very academic. My interest is in hands-on helping, giving kids that spark for language, because once the kids get curious, there's no stopping them," she said.
Rust encourages parents to spell words to their children as a kind of guessing game "Let's go to the P-A-R-K, OK?" The king of Skittledeedoo urges parents and children to "take a kingly stroll" together and to notice things they'd like to know more about, then to find books that answer their questions. Rust thinks reading should be presented as a tool for satisfying curiosity; good readers become good detectives, puzzling things out for themselves.
"Language is magic. Language is power. Language pushes you forward in the world," she said.
But she has empathy for children: "What we forget is learning is hard, reading is hard at first. These children need help," she said.
Rust has had a colorful career as the "Ivory Girl" in TV advertisements, a model and spokeswoman. She became more interested in writing when her modeling career called her away from school. "They let me get out of school, but I had to write about the places I visited," she recalled. She studied journalism at UCLA, but her forte was "creative," not journalistic, writing. She became a researcher for a Public Broadcasting System affiliate but ended up doing a talk show, a sort of Miss Fix-it show called "On Cue." She also has been a staff writer for TV. Several of her screenplays are making the rounds.
With a life so wrapped up in words, Rust feels she found her true calling when she became a literacy advocate. She loves to dress up in one of her antique kimonos and visit a classroom or library, reading "The King of Skittledeedoo" aloud, letting the kids climb up on her and try on her robes to capture the "kingly" feeling that comes from being able to read and spell.
If she's a little short on specifics about how the Rust Foundation will carry out its work here, Rust isn't short on enthusiasm. "I like to leave things open and not limit myself," she said. Having received praise from public figures ranging from Wally Amos to Laura Bush, she is confident that "if you have a dream, you just have to keep at it."