Judy Blume was in town last week and I, along with a group of children’s writer buddies, went to hear her speak. She talked about her books, her writing process and a little about growing up in the 1950s, but one thing that stuck in my mind is what she said about reading.
“My parents gave me a great gift. The idea that reading is great. They were proud that I was a good reader.”
It had never hit to me quite so clearly that such an attitude was not universal. I grew up knowing that, of course, being a good reader was a good thing. Of course, you learned to read and to read well. I mean, yes, some kids struggled to read, but surely reading was a valued thing.
But then I remembered homes that oddly didn’t seem to have books in them. Parents who I never saw reading. Families who didn’t go the library every week. Friends who marveled that our father read aloud to us every Sunday.
I think I was a bit like Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Until Blume made her comment, it never occurred to me that to have people around you who valued reading wasn’t simply a given. Or to put it better, it hadn’t occurred to me that to have such people around you was a gift in itself.
Do you remember when you learned to read? I remember the exact moment.
I’m sitting in the first grade. It’s probably the second or third week of school and we’re learning the alphabet. On the wall is a picture of a clown holding balloons. He has a red balloon, a blue balloon, a green balloon and a yellow one. There are letters of the alphabet on the balloons. And suddenly I realize something amazing. The letters on the red balloon, R-E-D, meant “red.” They are the same thing—the color I’m seeing with my eyes and the letters are telling my brain the same thing.
It was a code and my mind raced with the realization. All the things in the room had a code that meant it—desk, pencil, teacher, floor. What an incredible thing.
“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” said Victor Hugo
After that, reading came quickly for me. Of course, I was motivated to learn this magic thing. You didn’t need an apple for someone to tell you: apple. You didn’t have to be in the same room or live in the same town or the same country or the same century for someone to tell you, “apple.” For someone to tell you anything.
As George R.R. Martin has one of his character’s say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
And I wanted to live every life, real and imagined, that I could get my hands on. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what I could tell others with my magic code. I just wanted to know what was out there; what others knew; what they could tell me.
Later I began to dream about telling my own stories, casting my own spell with this magic code. But like Blume, I belatedly realize that it began with what I took for granted: being surrounded and supported by those who honored reading.