Leslie Jordan Dishes on His Love of Books Ahead of Barbara Bush Foundation Event Celebrating Reading

"I can't imagine what my life would be without books," the Call Me Kat and Will & Grace actor tells PEOPLE

Leslie Jordan
Leslie Jordan. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty

Leslie Jordan's love for reading has landed him in a spot he never dreamed: appearing in October as a special guest at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy's National Celebration of Reading.

"When they called and asked me, I was so honored," the Will & Grace and Call Me Kat actor tells PEOPLE.

"I thought, Why me?" Jordan says. "The only thing I can think of is that on my Instagram, I've said a couple of times how much I love reading."

That could be: Jordan has more than 5.5 million followers on Instagram, many of whom he added during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year as he posted his socially distanced daily musings that became a source of entertainment and comfort for his fans. (The Washington Post declared him "our feisty quarantine uncle.")

The guest list for the Oct. 21 Kennedy Center event will mix stars like Jordan, 66, with noted political names.

Among the attendees will be former President George W. Bush, Eva Chen, Meena Harris, Lupita Nyong'O and and Tim Shriver, organizers say.

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The Barbara Bush National Literacy Honors Awards will be presented to LeVar Burton and the LeBron James Family Foundation. Writer and MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart will host.

"I'm not sure exactly what I'll be saying. I'll talk about books and my love of reading," Jordan says, joking, "They'll just prop me up like an aging show pony and I'll jump right in."

No no, says British A. Robinson, president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

"In his most recent book, Leslie shared that the greatest gift his mother gave him is his love of reading. We wholeheartedly agree," Robinson tells PEOPLE.

Mrs. Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law Sharon Bush watch over her grandchildren on in Washington at the Blair House
J Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock

Loving reading yields rich, long-term rewards, Robinson says: "We know that low literacy prevents far too many mothers from sharing that gift with their own children. In fact, a mother's education level is the number one determinant of their children's future success. That's why our team at the Barbara Bush Foundation works daily to ensure that all parents and caregivers have the literacy skills they need to support their families and help their children succeed in school — a mission that's more critical than ever as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Jordan's own social media fame helped lead him to writing a book published this year, How Y'all Doing?, and a gospel and country album, Company's Comin, released in March, which features duets with artists including Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile.

Jordan says that when he met Parton, a fellow Tennessean, they talked a lot about reading. Parton founded Imagination Library, a program that has given away more than 150 million books to children since 1995.

"She's given out so many books to children. She said, 'If you get them when they're young, then you're going to have them for good,' and I just fell in love with her for that," Jordan says.

He holds reading close to his heart and remembers the details from his favorite childhood books — including Misty of Chincoteague, about two siblings' bond with wild horses. Jordan says he still dreams of witnessing the annual pony swim between the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia.

"That's big on my to-do list. I loved that book," he says. "And I loved the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. She was great. All the other boys were reading the Hardy Boys, and I was reading the Bobbsey Twins."

Jordan says his mother — and those hot Tennessee summers — helped make him an avid reader.

Actor Leslie Jordan attends FOX Host "The Cool Kids" Outdoor Screening Event at Roxbury Park on September 24, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.
Leslie Jordan. Earl Gibson III/Getty

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"There was the bookmobile with their air conditioning. I would get books and just lay there on my belly on the floor until they ran me out," he says. "They'd run me out saying, 'Mr. Jordan, we've got to move on to another elementary school, you've got to go.' "

Books were another kind of respite, too, while Jordan was growing up gay in a conservative community in the '50s and '60s.

He's currently reading books by the Mitford sisters — British aristocrats from a scandal-ridden family — and said he always likes to have a title nearby.

"I'm so glad I have a love of reading. I can't imagine what my life would be without books," he says. "It would be so small. Books just opened doors to all kinds of things."

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