Voices behind 'SpongeBob' read to Tri-City kids

You could have heard a pin drop in Tapteal Elementary School's library in West Richland on Monday morning.

Sure, libraries are supposed to be quiet, but the hush was remarkable for a couple of reasons.

More than 50 children were crowded into the small room, and the two men reading to them were celebrities flown in from Los Angeles.

Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, the voices behind the two lead characters on the popular show Spongebob Squarepants, were reading to the students as part of a private initiative modeled after the national Read Across America program. Monday marked the first such event here, but organizers say more are to come.

Kenny and Fagerbakke read to classes ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade at Tapteal before moving on to Christ the King Catholic Elementary School in Richland for the afternoon.

For the Tapteal kids, the two selected Belle's Journey by Marilynn Reynolds. The dramatic story about a girl and her horse nearly perishing in a blizzard did not fit the silly theme many might have expected, but the children were rapt with attention nonetheless.

Once horse and girl were safely back in their fictional home, Kenny asked, "So, anything you want to know about string theory or cartoons?"

No takers for particle physics, but a chorus of little voices cried out, "Do the voice!"

Not surprised, Kenny obliged and the voice of the most famous sponge in America filled the room. He also showcased other characters' voices from his repertoire, eliciting murmurs of "Amazing!" and "Oh, my God!"

"So he has a lot of imagination," Fagerbakke, who's the voice of Patrick Star on the show, told the students. "And I bet a lot of that imagination came from reading books when he was a kid."

Message delivered.

After the children left, Kenny confirmed that reading was his inspiration. He grew up one of five children, and "I developed the skill to come up with different voices while reading to my younger siblings," he said.

Like many children, he loved cartoons. Unlike most, by the time he was 8, Kenny was studying the pictures of voice-over actors on the back of record albums and wanting to join their ranks.

He also read up about cartoons, how they're made and how to get into such a career. "The reason I have a job I really like is reading, finding out about it," Kenny said.

Fagerbakke credits books on an even more personal level. "One of the things I loved most about parenthood was the bond created by reading to my daughters," he said.

Although his daughters now are in their late teens, Fagerbakke has held on to a "precious 20 to 30 percent" of their children's books, the ones he'll "never give away."

He won't give them away, but he brought them with him Monday. Every book read came from his collection of cherished memories.

The two famous readers' visit came together thanks to an old Los Angeles connection.

Gary Moskovitz is vice president of the parent-teacher association at Tapteal and a tireless advocate of literacy. He worked for the Compton, Calif., School District for years.

Some 12 years ago, he started inviting Los Angeles actors and sports stars to the schools in his disadvantaged district, taking cues from Reading Across America.

Since then, Moskovitz estimates he has enlisted 1,000 celebrities to read to kids. He moved to West Richland in early 2008 and began looking for another PTA to share the expenses (the actors are reimbursed for their travel but receive no other compensation).

At least four actors are lined up to come to the Tri-Cities, one as early as November, Moskovitz said. He also plans to try to get more schools involved over time.