Multi-media memoir: Carina, child reader

My parents have a bunch of hilarious photos of me as a toddler. (I know this isn’t unusual for parents!) But several of the funniest involve me in various home settings with a book in my hands: in the playpen, on a rocking horse, at a birthday party, on the potty. My mom tells me I would grab a book– anything, really, with words and photos or illustrations– and just sort of stare at it.

Any time, any place… just staring.

I remember being read to as a child, though those memories are more sensory than anything else: I remember mom’s voice, and I remember feeling warm. I was usually read to in bed, surrounded by my favorite blanket and my teddy bear. I also remember going to the library during the summer to listen to books and storytelling. These earliest memories are just wonderful, and entirely positive.

My dad and me, chillin’ ’70s style.

I have less fond memories of learning to read in school. In Kindergarten I remember hearing impressed adults telling other impressed adults that “[student in my class] already knows how to read” and “[another student] is ‘advanced’,” whatever that meant. I had the feeling that something was happening around me for a few kids that was not happening for me.

But I still read with mom. I felt a kinship to Madeline, who though sweet seemed to have the mild rebellious streak I shared.

I was fascinated/ horrified by the old lady who swallowed a fly (among other critters). I was scared but mostly angry at the many injustices of the Grinch (especially the way he treated his dog), but loved Cindy Lou Who . And there was Birds of Our World, featuring the cool boy with the cool ’70s wool sweater and a cool pair of binoculars looking at cool birds.

A book full of favorite things at age 1 and 41: birds and cozy woolens.

In first grade the stakes were high, and learning to read brought a bit of anxiety. I remember phonics, and learning about blends and digraphs and consonants and vowels. I also remember being divided up into reading groups, noticing that none of those “advanced” kids were in my group. What was I missing?

In second grade the tide turned. I remember that all of a sudden it seemed the letters came together in words which then merged into sentences that had meaning. Breakthrough! The library became my favorite room in the school. I loved everything about it, from the dusty smell to the beautiful organization of it all. I remember how cool it was to find a book and look at its history signed by past students on old cards in the back. And I remember becoming friends with the other readers in the class. We would recommend books to each other, borrow personal copies, chat about books during recess and act out characters in scenes. (I always insisted on being Nancy Drew.) I would get busted staying up late to read under the covers with a flashlight. I felt a sense of agency and an excitement and confidence that came with reading. Grade 2 was the year the world seemed to open up.

Yes, more birds and wool; obsessions start young.

It’s quite something to reflect on my childhood associations with reading. I seem to have carried my earliest reading interests (birds and animals, strong curious girls, detective stories, woolen sweaters) into my adult life (Audobon Society member and dog owner, nurturer of a mild oppositional disorder, lover of moody British crime drama… knitter of woolen sweaters).

But it’s also particularly useful to recall my feelings as a frustrated emergent reader. The best teachers I’ve had were those who acknowledged struggling when first learning the content they were teaching… and I know that the best teaching I’ve done was when I remembered the difficulties and triumphs learning it myself.

My cousin Joseph and me, with books in my playpen. We still talk about what we’re reading to this day. He recently finished a biography of Castro. Power to the readers!