Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part II)

Karen Burnham

Continuing the discussion from Part I (before it off-roaded into Lovecraft-children’s-pastiche territory…)

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Cat Rambo

My grandmother was a YA sports author*, and she was the one who brought me book after book, although I grew up in a house where people were usually reading in the evenings, rather than watching TV. At some point, she gave me a book about writing for kids, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail, by Jacqueline Jackson, which had a reading list in the back. I methodically worked my way through that, discovering L.M. Boston, and the Moomins, and a lot of other books I might not have otherwise discovered. I was very lucky in that anything I expressed an interest in, she’d find a book (or twenty) on the subject for me.

Because I was such a voracious reader, my parents negotiated with the librarian to give me free run of the shelves. I immediately found the sf section, grabbed a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft, and gave myself nightmares for the next month. It was awesome.

Beyond encouraging it, my parents never restricted our reading, which sometimes led to interesting conversations, such as when I discovered National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings and wanted to know what “fart” meant, soon followed by another f-word, which I found in a book about the Vietnam War which probably was slightly inappropriate for a sheltered 12 year old, but no less so than the James Bond novels I was reading at the same time. Sporadically my father would try to get us to read more nonfiction, but that was about the extent of the guidance.

We also got the New Yorker, which I will always have a great fondness for. At first, I just read it for the cartoons, but that gradually changed as I started dipping into poetry and Talk of the Town articles.

Books were always a safe place, and usually a much more interesting one than this world. I started working in the library in high school, and it was like coming home.

*Her titles included Basketball Bones, Football Flash and my personal favorite: Martha Norton, Operation Fitness USA.

Carolyn Cushman

I was also one of those kids who didn’t learn to read until they were taught in school — partly because my parents flat out told me I couldn’t read when I tried to read along when they read to me. I was a good kid. Too good for my own good, sometimes. Also, Mom was a kindergarten teacher before I came along, and in my experience, teachers hate it when kids get ahead of the lesson plan.

But on the other hand, my Dad read to me every night and made up stories at bedtime. We went to the library at least once a week for a new load of picture books, and had plenty of reading material at home. As soon as I learned to write my name and phone number, my Mom took me to the library for my first library card, which meant we could load up on even more books — and by third grade the librarians tested my reading ability and let me loose in the adult section. I guess we had an enlightened library system in our area. So what if the school district kept banning Catcher in the Rye?

Mom read mysteries and historicals, Dad read strictly non-fiction, but neither really cared what I chose to read on my own, although at one point Dad opined the Bobbsey Twins were boring and probably too easy for me — my first indication that he would at least sample the books I was reading. Mom discouraged me from reading Shakespeare at one point, but only because my questions were driving her crazy — she got me a book of Shakespeare stories retold for kids and pulled out her annotated set of the plays and showed me how to read footnotes for myself.

From the earliest days, I leaned towards fairy tales and fantasy, though for a while I detoured into horse stories, being seriously horse crazy. But our junior high had an excellent SF collection, and I had homeroom in the library, which meant I ended up reading things that would never have occurred to me, like fiction magazines — F&SF was the big find, though I leaned more towards Analog by high school. I really didn’t run into much real SF as a pre-teen — the Danny Dunn series sticks out in my mind — but once I realized the genre existed, I sucked up every book by Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, Lester del Rey, and Alan E. Nourse (a local) I could find. I’d still read just about anything the family left lying around, and waded though a bunch of classics because I found a list of books “everybody ought to read” somewhere, but SF and fantasy were my first choice for pleasure reading from then on. And then I found a list of “SF books everybody ought to read” which diminished the pleasure somewhat, but certainly widened my appreciation of the genre…. I’m of mixed feelings about that kind of list, but they have their place. Still, I avoided every science fiction class I ever encountered, wanting to avoid turning the reading of SF into work — and now it is my work.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I’m amazed at how many of us can remember whether or not they learned to read before school. I can’t. However, I always used to joke that knowing how to spell my last name (which I did know how to do before going to school) taught me the alphabet at an age much younger than most kids learn it, so perhaps I DID know how to read before school.

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One thought on “Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part II)

  • November 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    A couple of comments mentioned certain, er, salacious books, passed around for the “hot parts.” I didn’t read any of them at the time—I read some later, in full adulthood—but several of the SF books I read at entry-level, particularly Heinlein from “Stranger in a Strange Land” through “Time Enough for Love,” and some others, were just drenched in sex.

    But I didn’t notice! It all went right over my ten- to twelve-year-old head. Later, some time after puberty hit, when I reread some of them, I saw it—but, by then, reading those books for the sex scene was out of the question. (I pursued that interest elsewhere.)


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