This semester I am beginning my professional sequence, taking courses that are not theory but practical, how-to classes. One class I am enjoying immensely thus far is Methods of Teaching English, taught by the wonderful Dr. Laura Nicosia (if you’ve never read my blog before you need to know that I love her and she is wonderful and also I work as her graduate assistant). Our first assignment was to write a brief literacy autobiography. There were a few prompt-like questions to get us started, such as “What is your first memory of reading? What was the first book you read and loved?” Essentially the question I sought to answer is, “Why do I love reading? What experiences have led me to be the reader I am?” These questions are of course related, and I think these are vital questions for future English teachers to consider. Below is my much-edited response (we were only allowed two pages! So many memories, so little space to squish the words into!) I have no doubt I could go on, detailing more specific books I loved and how they helped make me the person I am today, but I think the point is well made below, and there is always the option of discussing those books at a later time, in a book review and personal essay hybrid (now that I’ve thought of that, I’m fairly certain I’ll end up writing at least one such blog post).
My earliest memory of books and reading may not be a genuine memory, but that sort of false memory that forms when you’ve heard a story about yourself told so many times that you start to feel as though you remember it, too. For my entire childhood my parents read to me, and when I was about two years old my favorite book was a chunky cardboard book called No, No Nicky! about a mischievous kitten who was curious about everything, and got into trouble for it. I loved this book, with its thick pages that even my clumsy toddler fingers could turn and its strict admonishing of the sweet kitten to behave himself and follow the rules. I loved this book so much that I made my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles read it to me over and over again until I had memorized it. I sat down with the adults in my life and ‘read’ it to them, with perfectly timed pauses and page turning. My Uncle Fran was convinced I was a baby genius, until my mother shattered the illusion and told him I’d memorized the book.
Reading was always important in my house. If you asked me to describe my childhood, I’d tell you it was playing tea party and dress-up with my sister by day (creating and telling our own stories) and listening to our parents read us bedtime stories at night (providing models for us to structure our storytelling). Mom read like a bedtime story was a cup of Celestial Seasons Sleepytime tea, a distinctly pre-bed activity; very calm, very soothing, very much like singing a lullaby. Dad read with voices and sound effects and dramatic moments! Dad was also more likely to ad lib and try to skip through books he didn’t like as much as we did, resulting in squeals of “Daddy, nooooooo! You skipped it; go back go back go back!” Prized possessions in our library included The Piggy in the Puddle and A Garden for Miss Mouse, both candidates on the short list of Books Dad Would Prefer to Not Have to Read Again.
The first book I actually read (instead of reciting from memory) was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Mom got it to read to us girls, and when we came home I told her, “I can read it to you, and you can listen.” We sat on the bottom bunk (my sister’s bunk, naturally) with Mom on one side of me and Rachel on the other and I read the whole story to them. I was so, so proud of myself, I’d read this book that I had never heard or seen before without needing help. This was freedom! Independence! The world of books now mine to access whenever I wanted, no waiting for my parents. From there, I remember loving books and loving the act of reading. There is still something magical about finding a quiet place, opening a book, and just leaving my world for whatever was going on in the story and knowing I could stop and return to the real world at any time. There was (and is) so much out there, waiting to be explored from the safety of my own room.
When my family moved during third grade, I dug into books (Little House on the Prairie, the Wayside School books, The Magic School Bus). I could take them with me anywhere, unlike a stuffed animal or other comfort item. They’d make me laugh and feel good, like friends, and books wouldn’t ever make fun of me for my thick glasses and homemade jumpers (though I ardently believe I still would have read for the magic transformative property of it even if I hadn’t been the nerdy new girl). The stories inside them were exciting without actual danger, unless I was caught reading when I should have been doing classwork. Books gave me something to do with my hands, even if that something was just to hold them, and something to think about, or something to talk about. Sharing the facts from Magic School Bus books was a fixture of dinner conversation in my house at the time when those books were the best part of the Scholastic book fair. I think books kept me from being lonely when I didn’t know anyone else, and it is because I was a reader that I formed the friendships I still have with other readers in my class.
Fantasy has been my genre of choice since it occurred to me around age 10 that Camelot wasn’t just a movie my mother watched as a child (she remembered my name from a double feature she saw as a girl), but a legend about which books were written. Sharing a name with the Queen of Camelot is certainly incentive to try to find out more about the fictional court she presided over. Reading retellings and assorted interpretations of her tragic romance out of curiosity (initially about her, then about how she could be both so powerful and so powerless in her position as Queen; the relationship between social scrutiny and political power in court stories still fascinates me) led to an ongoing interest in both retellings of fairy tales (Robin Hood is my other preferred mythology) and all things medieval that ultimately steered me toward excellent authors like Gerald Morris, Donna Jo Napoli, Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. Reading their works helped me form ideas of what it is to be a good person. The things I read continue to challenge and shape my worldview. Books and storytelling show us different ways of being in the world. I believe that the stories we connect with help us navigate the world and become the unique people we are just as the experiences we live through shape us.