Born to two bibliophiles isn’t necessarily as idyllic as it sounds to other bibliophiles. We own a lot of books. We read a lot of books. We starting buying baby books before we bought baby clothes. We worked hard to do everything humanly possible to instil an enthusiasm for books. Every room in the house has a bookshelf with at least a few books. We’ve transitioned early and pretty thoroughly to eBooks – what’s better than a book, you ask? An eBook of course! It lets you carry thousands of books in your pocket – isn’t that the most awesomest thing ever?!
The perspective of a child born into a world of literacy when they are illiterate can be rather different. Books are the things parents stare at for hours, not looking at you. Books are the murderers of many a conversation. Books are things that everyone around you seem to love and yet they are not accessible to you. Books are rivals, they’re imposters and conversations almost always invariably contain the phrase, ‘when you’re older and can read well, you’re going to love this book!’
Cass was at first determined to make it into the grown-up world of reading. She grew up loving books, pretending to read them and the weekly library trip was always met with excitement. She got a little older. She started the arduous process of learning how to read and it went brilliantly for a while. She read daily – our trip to the library became a trip to get age-appropriate reading books – two or three for every day of the week – and it didn’t take long for her to progress from sounding out every word to reading a full sentence.
Then came Year 1 and with it, many complications. Type 1 Diabetes, landing in a different class at school than all her friends, a new teacher, a new year with more homework and by the end of the first term, she hated everything about school, including the books. She stopped reading. She stopped learning new words. She detested the books sent home from school and refused to go on our weekly trip to the library. She was sure she was terrible at reading and she was also pretty sure that she didn’t care because reading had turned into something dreary, something boring, something tedious that sucked the joy out of her day.
Her room, filled with books, including some of our books that she had collected to ‘save for when I’m big enough to enjoy them’ were emptied of books one Saturday morning. A huge pile of books appeared in front of a closed bedroom door that said ‘No Entry.’ I picked them up and put them in the lower shelves of the bookcase in my office. She didn’t want to read at bedtime. She didn’t want to tell stories. She didn’t want anything to do with anything remotely connected to literacy in any way.
We were absolutely terrified. Our vision of raising her to be a bookworm by age nine vanished. We never thought we had any hidden agendas, but we very quickly realised that we had one: we desperately wanted her to discover the pleasure of reading books. It took a lot of willpower to take a step back. We did math at bedtime instead of reading a book – it was the new thing. We filled her shelves with art supplies and maps – another new thing. She spent her time drawing, designing and writing. We were okay with that.
Then started the questions – ‘how do I spell…’ I gave her a Dictionary. She almost threw it back at me. ‘I can’t read this! It’s too complicated.’ I gave her a mobile phone. ‘Ask Google’, I said. So she did. Google and Cass became best friends overnight. Not only did Google show her how to spell words, she also read interesting bits about it out loud. She also answered questions, but only some. Others were answered through text. That’s when she started reading again. I listened with a huge grin as she painstakingly spelled out whole paragraphs from Wikipedia.
Then came the next question: Mum, I don’t understand, is there an easier version for children? ‘What do you want to know, Cass? I said, holding my breath. ‘I want to know about the Big Bang and evolution.’ Fancy that. ‘I have a great children’s book in my little library, you know. It tells you all about it. Written especially for children about your age.’ I waited, counting to ten in my head. ‘Can I borrow it?’, she said. I nodded and handed it over. Off she went to her room, shutting the door. An hour later she emerged.
I held my breath a second time, pretending to be busy. One look might shatter this glass door slowly creaking open. She walked silently past me and sat down at the cushions I’d placed by the bookshelves. ‘Can I sit in your library for a bit? I’d like to have a look.’ I was ecstatic. ‘Sure,’ I said, not giving her too much attention, ‘help yourself.’ Another hour went by. A huge pile of books were scattered on the floor behind me when I turned off my computer. ‘I’ll clean up the mess,’ she said. ‘I don’t think books are a mess,’ I said and sat down on the floor. We had a long conversation. We shared our favourite choices from her pile, reading bits out loud to each other. At the end of it, she carted off three books back into her room.
Over the coming weeks, more and more books disappeared from the shelves. A book about Shakespeare. An Atlas of the world. Titchy Witch. Tabby McTat. Last week, she was back again with another question. ‘All these books, they don’t have much magic in them. I like learning about things, but factual books aren’t really fun to read and they are very hard to understand. I know I need to learn how to read, but the easy books are just so easy and sooooo bo-rinnnng. I don’t think I’m a very good reader. I don’t think I’ll ever learn how to read. There’s just too many words.’
I took Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone out of the bookshelf. ‘This is for big kids,’ I said, ‘like Year 5 or Year 6 or even bigger, I think. It has no pictures and loads of paragraphs, but I want to show you something.’ She looked at me sceptically, ‘I will never be able to read that.’ I persuaded her to try. It was hard going. She stumbled over a few words in every sentence. She didn’t know the meaning of some. She didn’t understand the more complex sentence structure. She was a little frustrated. ‘See, Mum, I can’t read, just listen what I sound like when I try!’ She started over again, from the beginning. Having tested the waters once, she was more confident the second time round. Words flowed fluently and she finished the first paragraph and was half-way into the second before she stopped. ‘I understood that! I read it and I understood it! I think I can read!’
It was World Book Day the week before last and she dressed up as Hermione. I asked why she picked that particular character. ‘Because I love books and Hermione love books. I just looove reading so so much!’ Bedtime has taken on a whole different argument these days. She won’t put it down. ‘Just one more page’ – No – ‘Just one more paragraph?’ – No! – ‘Just one more sentence! Just one! Pleeeaassse’. All right, I say. Just one. She reads, haltingly at first, with pauses, sometimes sounding out, sometimes asking for a hint, sometimes asking what a particular word or phrase means. The second time is better and by the third time, it’s sounding pretty good. I listen to her read and I’m amazed that after all these years of trying, we’re on the brink of almost having made it.
Learning how to read is a complicated challenge. It takes years to learn, but thank goodness, we only have to learn once. I forget that language surrounds us and reading isn’t just about one day being able to read to the end of Lord of the Rings. We make learning how to read such a tedious task, filling children’s lives with the chore of reading the same things, in the same way, every day. We’ve moved away from reading as homework – finishing off the school book at record speed first thing so we can move on to the better stuff – reading a recipe as we cook dinner, reading the game text when we play a game, reading maps, signs, letters and famous quotes I stick up everywhere.
‘Mum, why does it say -FORWARD MOMENTUM – on your wall?’ she asks. ‘Well…’, I say, ‘it’s a long story – from a series of books called The Vorkosigan saga – and when you’re older and can read well, you’re going to love those books…’