Learning to Read

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Nancy Burkert

When I was a child, infants were not set down before flash cards to drool over words like ball and cat and isosceles. By the time I learned to read, I really wanted to know how to read. I sat in my mother’s lap and sobbed at not being able to decipher for myself the great mysteries held within the pages of the books she read aloud to us. When I arrived at first grade, I was ready.

But a great disappointment awaited me at my little desk facing the chalkboard. When my first book was set down in front of me and we were guided in sounding out the words, all that turned out to be on the page was: “See Spot run.”

I had waited six years for this? What had happened to the mystical adventures of James and his peach infested with humongous insects and Charlie and the misfit children and their chocolate river?

“See Spot run?” For real?

I was crestfallen. Apparently the books I was allowed to read were a completely different animal from the ones my mom got to read. Those deliciously deranged characters and their delectable predicaments were for grown-ups. All I was going to read about was the lackluster life of Spot, whose only motivation was a red ball. This was not the adventure I had signed up for.

The result? I stopped reading. Not entirely, of course. I did read at school when one of the dreary Spot-and-Jim-and-Mary books was set in front of me. I was a good girl and a good student. But I did not become one of those kids who holed up with books in my bedroom. Playing outdoors was much more adventurous than anything I was able to sound out from a page; I would hunt out blue jays’ nests in the tree tops and maybe even find my own chocolate river.

I didn’t establish a reading habit until I was presented with my first seventh-grade book, To Kill a Mocking Bird. Phew! I would not, after all, have to wait to be grown-up to read something that rocked my world. It didn’t hurt that I had the most gifted teacher of my educational career to hold a torch for us as we edged our way into the abyss of the human psyche and the moral choices we face in a not-always-kind world. And how lucky I was that this teacher, Peter Sawaya, would guide me through a good six years of literature, the torch never wavering.

Later Peter had us write in the style of great authors—in the European manner of teaching creative writing. We read, and then imitated, Homer, Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac—our young minds flexing and stretching. I took this task seriously, studying the structure and cadence of each author’s sentences before trying on his or her style in my own tale of ocean crossing or coming of age. At thirteen, I was growing my writing muscle.

All that careful reading, and the nurturing guidance of my mind and my pen, has led me to do what I do today. I hold the torch for others as they edge their way into their own work, flexing and stretching their writing muscles. Sometimes I step in and write in an author’s stead, studying the cadence of his or her sentences before I adopt the author’s voice and set sail into a book that I never would have written on my own. I fall in love with each and every book I shepherd or ghostwrite, just as I fell in love with Ms. Harper Lee’s novel all those years ago.

Thank you, Peter, for handing me To Kill a Mockingbird, the first of many great books to follow.

Related post: My Theory about Fast Readers.