Confession: I have not always loved books. Blasphemy, I know, for a writer to admit such a thing, but it’s the truth. Instead, for a long time, I was the kid who made fun of her best friend for loving reading. It took me until fifth grade to overcome my dislike of books and the challenge reading presented. I have no good excuse for this, other than I was a typical know-it-all-little-kid who was just a little too hard headed.
Another, bigger part of the issue was that I wasn’t one of those kids who picked up reading quickly. I was slow to learn the patterns of letters as they formed words and the words that formed sentences.
When I was younger, teachers assigned homework that forced me read and write what they wanted. I think the control freak within me, resisted that and so I did what I was told, but I didn’t like it. To make matters worse I had teachers who forced us students to read out loud in front of the class. We were “pop-corn” reading to look for context clues in hopes that we’d understand the “meaning” of the work. Whenever my turn “popped up” I’d slow down the reading pace because I could not read as fast as others in my classes. This was made doubly bad by my inability to “sound out” the words so longer words had funny pronunciations and awkward stuttering. I’m the first to admit these weren’t my best moments. Never mind that almost everyone was terrible at reading in second and third grade, I was still horribly embarrassed. For a long time I associated reading with that embarrassment and wanted next to nothing to do with books. Even after I had learned to read rather well I was resistant to the idea that reading was anything more than homework and a form of adolescent torture devised by teachers to make us pay attention in class and suffer.
My parents, thankfully, had a much smoother approach to getting me to do things I was uncomfortable with. They never forced or pushed me to jump on the reading train. Instead, Mom and Dad gradually encouraged me to change my mind. They transformed reading from a chore into a pleasure.
It helps that my parents could relate to my feelings. My father is not a reader of anything but news and hunting magazines. He did not force books into my hands mainly because he didn’t like to read them either (The exception was the D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y. Dad was constantly forcing my older sister Jess and I to grab the dictionary if we didn’t know how to spell a word; he’s not the type to just spell it out for us). Instead of pushing books, Dad would read me articles from the news paper and tell me interesting things about animals that he read in his magazines. It was through him that I learned the power of the written word and about the knowledge that a person could pass on through text.
More important than any news article, however, was our bedtime ritual. At night he would tuck me in and bring those animal creatures dwelling in his magazines to life in a magical forest. Dad told stories off the top of his head about Timmy the Talking Squirrel, Benny the Badger, and all their forest friends that would make a master storyteller a bit envious. To this day my mother and I swear he should have been a children’s author they were so good. Part of me finds it unfair that these stories have not been shared with anyone but me, but mostly I take selfish pleasure in the fact that this is something my father and I alone enjoyed. He gave me the gift of story every night before I fell asleep and fostered my own imagination carefully, asking me to fill in details and allowing me to decide plot points. Dad granted me access to the stories I craved and could not read myself.
My mother took a different approach. She would have me draw pictures for the fridge and tell me to tell her the stories behind them. Every picture had a story behind it, and because of her, I was creating my own stories long before I could write them down. At other times, Mom would cuddle my small, round body on the couch and read me Dr. Seuss, Strega Nona, or flip through I Spy books that I brought home on “Library Day.” I enjoyed the images and vivid pictures in the I Spy series, and I desperately wanted to taste the pasta from Strega Nona’s magic pot, convinced it would be the very best pasta I could eat. More than anything, I loved the way Seuss’ words rolled around in her mouth, twisting her tongue against her teeth to create a new world. Mom showed me the magic that existed within stories, and I would eventually learn to associate that magic with books.
Mom also had a hand in teaching me to love the experience of reading. Every time we would open a new book, she’d press her nose to the binding (usually at the mid-book point) and breathe in deeply the scent of ink and words. When she’d sucked in enough of the smell of fresh ink on crisp pages Mom would pass me the book, allowing me to do the same. It was a way of teaching me the tactile and physical pleasure of reading, rather than just the work of forcing my mind to bend letters into context.
Mom and Dad were the ones who gradually moved me away from hating reading and books. My parents slowly created within me a need to read, a need to consume as many books as I could. Shortly after, that need morphed into a desire to produce my own works and stories. It was the beginning of love affair with literature, specifically children’s literature, that I’m never going to get over.
Now at 20 years old, all I want to do is that which my father never did, share written stories, both my own and those of others, with children. I want to open their minds to worlds they wouldn’t be able to touch without books by letting them in on that magic that is reading and writing.
I walk in a world of reality and fantasy with books as my guide and my own imagination as my future. It’s a journey I can’t seem to resist.
The Books I Mentioned in this Post:
Tomie DePaola, Strega Nona (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975).
Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick, I Spy: a Book of Picture Riddles (New York: Scholastic, 1992).