Shelves stacked high with beloved children’s books line the walls of Jackson Academy’s Preschool Library. Tiny chairs and tables are arranged around the room where Ali Dinkins’ lifelong love of books fuels her enthusiasm and captivates her daily audience of students.
Dinkins has always loved picture books. She used them in high school speech classes and received them as birthday presents in college. “I didn’t know that that was unusual,” she says.
At Baylor University, Dinkins studied theatre and early childhood education, anticipating a future role as a teacher. She spent two years with a classical repertory theatre in Detroit after college, where she earned a master’s degree in theatre. Since moving to Jackson she has played the title roles in “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” at New Stage Theatre.
For the actress, reading to children is a performance. “I just love how magical it is to them,” says Dinkins, who enjoys watching curiosity ignite her audience’s eyes when they are intrigued by a story. “As adults, we would call it a page-turner.”
Preschool Dean Tara McDaniel says Dinkins “brings so much enthusiasm, children just fall in love with her and the books she’s reading to them.”
Dinkins and her husband John have four children, all at JA: Bonner in tenth grade, twins McNeill and Coleman in ninth grade; and Weathersby in fifth grade. In 2016, all six Dinkins packed up their bags to spend a year in Costa Rica. The children attended a bilingual school, and the family plugged into the community there. “We had always wanted for our kids to do some sort of cultural exchange, and I can’t imagine giving any of mine up for a year, to be actual foreign exchange students.”
“We learned a lot, not just Spanish,” she says. “Costa Rica values humility over efficiency. Everybody is so patient. The national saying is pura vida, and it just means ‘pure life.’”
When the Dinkins came home for Christmas that year they did a book drive for donations to help build the library at the school in Costa Rica. Each family member packed two 50-pound suitcases for the trip. “Six of us, so 600 pounds of books,” she says. Only it was actually 550 pounds — one suitcase credit had to be used for a kayak.
Dinkins’ children flourished as the family embraced Costa Rican culture. “It helped us all to appreciate each other,” Dinkins says. Tasks such as shopping for peanut butter when no one knew the words, or pulling their truck out of a mountain ditch, brought them together as a team.
In Costa Rica, “every day, nature touches your life,” she says, recalling with a laugh the way her family reacted to recent Mississippi rain. “We lived, soaking wet, for a year in the rain forest. We were all laughing at ourselves, that we didn’t want to get wet getting into the car!”