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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Laura Bush Plugs Press Freedom

APU.S. first lady Laura Bush, center left, and Lyudmila Putina enjoying a reading by R.L. Stein at the fair Wednesday.
U.S. first lady Laura Bush raised Washington's concerns over Russian media practices Wednesday and told children at a book festival they were free to write what they wanted.

Pursuing a campaign against television, Bush told the children to "turn off the television ... and read."

Bush, on a five-day diplomatic fence-mending tour of Europe, attended the festival with the wife of President Vladimir Putin, Lyudmila, and the wives of Armenian and Bulgarian leaders.

With Lyudmila Putina looking on, Bush told students, "This festival is ... a celebration of freedom, the freedom to write what we want, to write and read the books that we want to read."

The comments reflected U.S. concerns over what Washington says is government pressure on the Russian media and a concentration of ownership, a senior U.S. official traveling with Bush said.

"The government on occasion does not hesitate to squeeze the media," he said. But, he added, "The fact is, it [press freedom] is a lot better than it used to be."

Bush said she was confident her message got through, and that Russia was making progress in building democratic institutions.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Putin did not mention media freedom at a news conference in the United States last week, but Putin told students in New York that it has its limits.

Laura Bush on Wednesday spent several hours speaking at, and touring, the first Moscow book festival hosted by Putina.

Putina modeled the event, which is focused on children's literature and school libraries, after the annual book festival that Bush holds in the United States.

Bush arrived with an entourage of U.S. writers, the creators of some of America's most popular books for young people: R.L. Stine, author of the "Goosebumps" series; teen thriller writer Peter Lerangis, who wrote some of the Baby-Sitters' Club books; and Marc Brown, who writes and illustrates the "Arthur the Aardvark" series.

Bush, speaking at the opening session of the festival, said such events "celebrate books and reading and great writers."

Bush chose Stine and Lerangis to accompany her to Moscow in part because their books are among the few that have been translated into Russian.

Stine wove a new scary tale about a boy and a haunted car, cajoling the crowd of schoolchildren to help supply some of the details along the way.

Lerangis encouraged them to write by talking about how he overcame doubts about his ideas when he was young, and how he later found he could make money by turning them into books.

Though Brown's works have not been translated, it was clear as he drew with a group of younger children in another room that his illustrations speak for themselves. With direction from the screaming, laughing group, Brown made a huge drawing of a "new" creature made up of body parts from across the animal kingdom.

All the authors helped bring alive a message that Bush, a former librarian and teacher, often repeats: reading books is fun.

"A really good book makes you feel like you are part of the story," Bush said.

Later, with Putina, she also toured several of the festival exhibits on libraries, translations and children's literature.

On Wednesday evening, Putina arranged for a private showing of the ballet "Don Quixote" for Bush and her other guests at the Bolshoi Theater.

(AP, Reuters)