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.


Make an Impression with the New Shouting Kindle

The down side of Kindle? Well, there are probably a few, but one is that you can no longer flash the cover of the intellectual book you’re reading so others at the cafe around you will be impressed.

Problem solved: get the new shouting Kindle! It repeatedly shouts the title of the book you’re reading.




Kindle or Real Book—What’s Your Preference?

I, for one, haven’t given in to buying an electronic reader. It’s not that I’m against the idea of them. I just can’t picture myself taking pleasure from curling up around an electronic device. But then, I wasn’t the first in my crowd to get a cell phone, and I also dragged my feet about getting a smart phone (and let me tell you, I love my smart phone now).

But there is something about a real book—the feel, the smell, the thickness—that I find as comforting as hot chocolate.

How about you? Do you prefer a Kindle over paper pages? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

You can also check out the thoughts of some of my colleagues on the subject:  “Real” Books and Why We Love Them, by Suzanne Mantell, and Kindle: Friend or Foe, three articles by three other colleagues, Deborah A. LottKristin Loberg, and  Laura Golden Bellotti.

My Theory about Fast Readers

I am a slow reader. Yes, it’s true. (I like to think it’s because I’m reading deeply . . . but I also have a theory, so read on.)

I took a speed-reading class in college to try and help myself get through the enormous reading load at U.C. Santa Cruz. All that class taught me was how to be tense . . . while I read slowly.

Most people who know me probably think I was one of those kids who holed up and read in my room for hours on end. But I wasn’t. As soon as I got home from school, I changed into my play clothes and ran outside to practice cartwheels on the front lawn or find a tree to climb. I didn’t become an avid reader until I was about 12. And even then, I spent just as much time building things and playing and exploring outdoors.

So, here’s my theory on how people become fast readers (based on a very limited sampling of people): Those who read fast as adults were, as children, the type of people who devoured books for hours on end . . . before the age of 12.

Please help me test out my theory by answering these questions in a comment:

1) Are you a fast reader or a slow reader?

2) Did you hole up and read for hours on end before the age of 12?

I know you all are stopping by and reading my blog . . . Please don’t be shy. Share your thoughts!

Related post: Learning to Read.