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31 January 2011

A little personal history

My earliest memory is learning to read. I was three years old. One of my sisters was seven, and learning phonics in school. We were lying on the hardwood floor in the foyer of our drafty old house in western Pennsylvania, and she was reading Dr. Seuss books to me. I already knew the alphabet, but she explained all about how letters made sounds, and those sounds formed words. Eureka! A lightbulb went on over my head, just like in a Warner Brothers cartoon. I read my first book right there on the floor. I think it was Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop. Another early favorite was The Little Engine that Could (I think I can, I think I can...).

I read everything I could get my hands on. There was no shortage of books in the house, but I'd read anything — cereal boxes, milk cartons, shampoo bottles. When I was eight, my older brother went to college, and he sent me a lot of books that were inappropriate for my age. I remember reading Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon when I was about 11, and a lot of horror. Looking back, I think my brother was sending the books home for storage, but he never told my parents I was reading them.

I constantly made up my own highly melodramatic stories. In my strict Catholic elementary school, I was often punished for daydreaming. I won't share the revenge fantasies I concocted during those long hours standing in the corner. If I ever decide to write horror, I'll need them for source material.

Do any of you have vivid memories of reading as a child? Favorite books from the past?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I can't remember not knowing how to read. My family discovered I could read when I was 4. I remember THAT clearly because my grandmother was so shocked to find me not just looking at pictures, but trying to sound out the names of dinosaurs in this coffee table book of hers titled Marvels and Mysteries of the World Around us. She told my parents I could read, and they didn't believe her, saying I'd only memorized what people read to me. She stuck to her guns, and my parents got a library book they knew I'd never seen before and tested me on it. I read it aloud as instructed, though I was baffled by the whole thing because I couldn't see why they were so surprised that I could do it.

I got that old coffee table book when my grandmother passed away years ago, and I can totally see why it fascinated me as a child. It's dense with both pictures and text, and it's all about science, nature, and archeology. Dinosaurs, cave men, volcanoes, earthquakes, jungles, deserts...what's not to love?

8:52 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think my first reading moment came out of an old Dick Jane Spot reader that we had at home. My mom was studying to be an elementary school teacher, which was why we had it. Anyway, I looked at the words, "Jump Spot Jump," and at Spot jumping. And something, uh, JUMPED inside me.

I can't imagine not being able to read, but I think I'll find out soon, because I'm going to train to be an adult literacy volunteer, at San Francisco's Project Read.

Volunteer training is rigorous and extensive. But what could be better than sharing a lifelong passion?

9:07 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Susanna, one of my older sisters swears to this day that I wasn't reading, only parroting back what I'd memorized. I've stopped arguing with her; I know what I know about my own experience.

Pam, kudos for volunteering with Project Read! I'll look forward to hearing more about it.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

How funny! My Mom taught each of us to read from the Dr. Seuss books. I remember sitting in the living room floor while my Mom ironed and sounding out the words. I was about 4 years old. I thought it was some kind of magic, magic in those books. But one day we went shopping and I read the label of a cereal box and realized the power was in me! What a revelation. Got me in quite a bit of trouble in the first grade as I had no patience with children who didn't know what the words on the flash cards were!

5:54 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Like Susanna, I can't remember not reading.

When I was very little, my younger sister and I spent our summers with my grandmother. She read books to us, anything that kept our attention from Winnie the Pooh to History of the English-Speaking Peoples to Jungle Book to anything we pulled off the shelves and handed to her. I have the most wonderful memories of sitting around her in a fabulous English-style garden and listening, spellbound, while bees buzzed and birds sang high in the trees.

To this day, my vision of the perfect place to read is somewhere in that house or its garden.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and Robert Lewis Stevenson (for some reason my grandmother told me he was a sick little boy when he wrote those stories---a fact I have never checked), but boy was I into reading. Somewhere around 6th or 7th grade, my parents bought a box of leather bound classics at a garage sale...and bored one night I picked up Romeo and Juliet and was hooked. Read all 16 volumes of "The Classics" and then anything I could get my hands on.

Those were the days!

7:38 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I was a very early reader (three, I think); and even before I was genuinely reading, I convinced people that I could already read because I'd memorized the text of some of my favorite books so I would sit there with them in my lap and "read," turning the pages at the appropriate moments. The dead giveaway, however, was that I was holding the books upside down!

When I was about 10 or 11 I began to teach myself French with side by side copies of my favorite book, THE LITTLE PRINCE, in French and in English, trying to at least figure out the nouns. I had help from my maternal grandmother who had given me the books and who spoke, or at least understood, a smattering of French.

But I devoured nearly everything I could get my hands on as a kid, though I never got into science fiction or mystery (and never got into Nancy Drew and those sort of series books). But I was passionate about Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White and books like THE CASTLE OF LLYR and classics such as the A.A. Milne books and LITTLE WOMEN. I also loved to read plays and poetry as a kid, and loved historical stories even then as well.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention my first day of first grade when Mrs. Jacobs distributed the readers to every kid in class. I finished the book by the end of the day and went up to the teacher and asked if I could have another book. She said "yes"; I asked "When?" She replied, "In April, when the rest of the students have finished the reader."

I told my parents, and the next year I went to private school.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Annie Madison said...

My first historical novels -- but they were contemporary when written-- were the Little Colonel books, published around 1900. A family friend got them out of her grandmother's attic and gave them to me.

The book that really shaped my childhood was "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I read it first when I was about 10 and five or six times a year after that until I went to college. I was a middle-class kid in Nebraska who totally identified with Francie, growing up in a Brooklyn tenement before WWI. When my daughter Mary was about the same age we read it together and she fell in love too.

My grade school study hall was lined with shelves full of biographies of famous Americans -- you didn't even have to check them out. I started with Abigail Adams and read clear through to Woodrow Wilson.

8:10 PM  

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