It seemed like magic. Somehow, the squiggles and lines on pages made up words, and words made up stories. The little Golden Books my grandmother bought me from the supermarket were filled with such lines and squiggles. Sometimes, I could convince my grandmother or my mom to read to me from The Little Poky Puppy or the Gingerbread Man. Mostly, though, I sat with my treasured books on my own, trying to figure out the code that would make the stories come to life. I matched the pictures with words I’d heard and tried to guess. Was this word here, the one with the line at the top, tree? And the one with the letter that looped down low, was that word yellow? I made a game of it. When I was in the market with my mother, I would point to the signs I saw and say words out loud: Sale! Fish! Bread! And a lot of times I would be right and someone standing near would say to my mother, “Your daughter’s very bright.” My mother would nod in the distracted ways of young moms and say, “Yes, she is.”
But she thought I was only matching pictures to words. She didn’t know that every ounce of my brain was given over to working out the coded system adults seemed to know so well.
Now my parents were not really avid readers. Dad read the newspaper every night and Mom read movie magazines on the weekends or at the beach. They would read to me if I asked, but it wasn’t a nightly routine. We had books in our home, big, thick ones that rested on the bookcase my father had built by the side of the fireplace. But no one ever took one of the books down and opened them up. I had, of course, my little collection of Golden Books. Almost every week, my grandmother added a new one.
But, young as I was, I knew that they weren’t REAL books, not the kind with the thick sides and the shiny covers that came off.
Then, the Christmas just before I turned four, Santa Claus brought me a real book. It was shiny, not made of cheap cardboard. It had a cover that slipped off and brightly colored drawings and—most wondrous of all!—words! Not just one or two words on each page, like some of my little Golden Books, but lines and lines of words. I held the book tightly to me even as my brother and I unwrapped the other gifts under the tree. And when my mother went into the kitchen to make breakfast and my brother played with his new Erector set, I asked my father to read the magical book to me.
“I will go into the zoo,” my father read, “I want to see it. Yes, I do.” I clung to the words, following along with my finger as he read each one off. And I was hooked. The creature that might have been a dog or a bear wanted to belong to the zoo! After my father finished reading it and before my mother called us for breakfast, I turned the words over in my head, pointing out each one to myself. After breakfast dishes were done, I asked my mother to read it to me. She obliged. Then I asked my brother, who gave a half-hearted attempt at the words. Then I asked my father again. Finally, my mother said, “Play with something else, Linda.”
But I wasn’t playing. I was learning to read.
As the afternoon wore on and dark fell, we bundled up and drove in Dad’s gray Plymouth to my grandmother’s house. I carried my wondrous book with the creature who might have been a dog but was probably a bear. There, while my mother and grandmother got Christmas dinner ready, I showed my grandfather my new book. He read it to me. Again. And again. Until at last it was time to eat.
I could hardly sit still to eat my turkey. I knew I was on the very verge of something wonderful, something life-changing, something so important that I as yet had no words for it. All through the main course and the apple pie, I longed to get back to my book.
But the adults did not understand. There were more presents under my grandparents’ tree, more toys and clothes and items to delight. There were no more books.
Later on, as the sounds of the Lawrence Welk Christmas show filled the living room and the Lennon sisters sang “Jingle Bell Rock,” I crawled up onto my grandfather’s lap. “I will read to you,” I said.
“Alright then,” he said and scooped me up close.
And I opened the book, the amazing book with the creature that might have been a dog or a bear or something entirely new, and I read the story to him. “Yes, this is where I want to be! The circus is the place for me!”
My grandfather was astounded. He called to my mother. “Betty, this child has learned to read.” My mother, dishtowel in hand and weary from Christmas, said, “Oh, Daddy, we’ve been reading that book to her all day. She’s just memorized the words.”
My grandfather shook his head. “No, Betty. She can read it.” And he made me read it again for my mother.
Backwards, from last page to first.
And I didn’t miss a word.
My parents stared at me for a moment. My mother stroked my head. “Sometimes,” she said, “this one just astounds me.”
I wasn’t sure what the word meant. But I knew I would find out. I knew that, somehow, a door had opened for me on that Christmas Day, beckoning me into a world of delight and wonder.
I had learned to read.