Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Early Reading and How It Happened

Although there has for decades been much discussion about reading and the teaching of reading, I’ve held my own opinions since I was a child. I didn’t learn to read in school. In my town, there was one other girl my age that went to kindergarten reading. 

I grew up in a house with books. I also spent my early years in a house with five other siblings while my parents separated and divorced.  Of course I sat on a few laps with a book and got a read-to at bedtime but that was hardly with the intention of teaching me to read early.

How did I start reading early?  I will always think that it was The Book. It was The Story. And it was the voice. It was The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  As my story goes, once that book was read to me, I begged for it to be read again and again, with anyone in the family who would read it. Then I read along with my finger on each word until I had memorized the book. It didn’t matter that the book had a few impossible words such as implored, exert, and chamomile.  Somehow I began to recognize easier words such as the, a, and blue. 

Where is this book?

Peter Rabbit led to other favorite books. I was a firm fan of  Dr. Seuss although when I got to school I found out that the school librarian had banned him.  Because I was reading Grimm and children’s novels,  she decided to confine me to the picture book shelves for a time.  She wanted to see what I would pick out.  She would say, “Why don’t you like this book?” and  “I want you to find a book on these shelves that you like.”

I used One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish   to help another child with reading. That was because I was appalled at Dick and Jane when I got to school. Their story was usually boring or nonexistent.

I recall that the newspaper became a learning tool. I would sit next to a sibling on the couch and demand to know what the words were in ads and in headlines. Pictures went with them so there was some curiosity.  A brother had a newspaper route, and I still remember being the first to see the funnies. That was reading development.

The public library was about four blocks away. As soon as I could, I walked there.  I remember the children’s librarians being wonderful to me. They became tutors and that was because the children’s room was often pretty much empty. They would try out new books on me and found my next books. I got an early pass to the adult section.

All of that made me think that it was not about the words and the ease of reading.  For me, it was about the material. In sixth grade, my language arts teacher challenged me to read David Copperfield. I read it in two weeks, fifty pages a day, and it made quite an impression on me. Never would I forget the oozing in the law office. I knew I was in a habit of guessing words from the context and as they repeated, I learned them. I was too lazy to reach for a dictionary but that was always possible. I think I read dialogue to get the story and probably skipped many paragraphs. 

But isn’t that the way that humans learn spoken language? A toddler begins picking out words, recognizing them in conversation, and adding to their verbal stash. Out of the desire to talk with people in the room.

1960's Book Club book
I cannot recall discussing a children’s novel with another child though I loved them and had a book club subscription. When I was in junior high school, I knew plenty of girls who cruised the adult section of the library, read books outside of school, and discussed them.

I still retained a love for children’s novels because of their creativity and their unpredictability. So even though I knew that grade school kids didn’t read after school - because they were being drummed with books and words 35-hours a week  -  I still wanted to write them later on.  It is a delightful genre.

That, of course, led to my collecting children’s editions. Somehow I had moved into adult life without taking any of my books. I have a few back now and their condition from my old bookshelf makes them saleable but not that desirable. Good condition in collectible children’s books is an infrequent find. Those books are the ones that are soon gone – early editions of Pooh, Dr. Dolittle, George MacDonald, The Lonely Doll, Horton Hears a Who, 1800’s Louisa May Alcott, The Little Prince, Little Black Sambo. As a child, I hadn’t known that many of the books I was reading were books read in my parents’ generation. Perhaps I wouldn’t have read them if I had known that.