Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

Russell Letson

I don’t recall ever seeing my mother read books when I was growing up (magazines, yes), and my father only occasionally, though I know he read a good bit as a kid and after he retired. In between, he was just working too hard. But somebody surely read to me early on, because I’m told I was reading well before I started school at age 4. Probably Ma sat me in her lap, though I have no memory of what she would have read to me.

So by third grade I was voracious and by sixth a notorious bookworm. My parents had gotten us a kid’s encyclopedia, which I read from A to Z (I can picture the blue bindings and the art-deco illustrations but not the title page.) There were the public and school libraries, and, for unrestricted and unfiltered access to grownup stuff, my father’s older sisters had walls of book-club editions of pop best-sellers I was allowed to pillage, from Ellery Queen to Samuel Shellabarger and Thomas B. Costain and Frank Yerby. Then there was that box of ancient proto-YA fiction I mentioned over in the Heinlein Juveniles and Teaching Literature threads, and my mother’s doorstop Prose and Poetry of America/England anthologies from high school and her copy of B.A. Botkin’s Treasury of American Folklore, and Dad pointed me at Kenneth Roberts and Walter D. Edmonds (he’d read them in high school, when they were best-sellers). So I recapitulated a significant chunk of my elders’ reading evolution while also heading on my own toward SF and medieval literature and Shakespeare and Shaw and e.e. cummings and Kipling and Frost. And aside from the occasional raised eyebrow over my mania for SF, no grownup ever put a straw in my way. But then, I was a stubborn little bugger and ignored all disapproval anyway.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

One thing I can say with fair certainty:  If you want your kid to enjoy reading, teach them to read long before they start school.

And here I become a statistical outlier. Unlike most of my hard-reading friends I couldn’t read before I went to school. I don’t know if my mother left it to the school because it was their job or didn’t have the patience herself but either is likely. I have no memory of her reading to me or my sister, and I was the one who read to my brother, three years younger than me.

What I do remember very clearly, and it’s one of my earliest proper memories, is the moment in Class 1 when it clicked, the words stopped being marks on a page and began to have a meaning. My sense is that I’d just been waiting for someone to show me how to do it because I was almost immediately reading anything I could lay my hands on and by the following year had a huge vocabulary which often got me into trouble if I used the words in speech, because people thought I was showing off.

We had very few books in the house, and those were a most eclectic mix of unsuitable school prizes picked up by recent ancestors for good conduct at Sunday school, that sort of thing: I remember Alice in Wonderland, a Sunday School prize about Wycliffe and the translation of the Bible into English, one school story that had been my mother’s, a small bundle of paperbacks she kept in a cupboard (nothing salacious), and of course, that box of my father’s childhood books I couldn’t get at because girls weren’t supposed to read Tarzan, or The Coral Island.

Which is not to say that books weren’t available; I was taken to the local library and given a reader’s ticket, and later, my father insisted that the main library in town gave me my own tickets for the adult library, well before the statutory age. There were books for birthday and Christmas but my mother bought according to what she felt a child my age should be reading (Enid Blyton’s Famous Five) rather than consulting me on my tastes. In her view, children didn’t have tastes. Pocket money was limited but thank god for Puffin paperbacks.

There were never enough books. I haunted local jumble sales when I was a child and then started in on the second-hand bookshops as soon as I was old enough to figure out what they were. Most of my books lived in the garage because my mother said they smelled. Quantity was always important. Less so, now, and I am sure half the reason I love the internet so much is that abundance of words, available at the click of a switch.

But no one ever asked what I was reading. I was pretty much left to my own devices, though I think my mother felt that reading was a skill that, once acquired, didn’t need to keep being exercised. It was important to have books around as objects, markers of literacy and cultural awareness, like owning a piano, but content was kind of irrelevant.

And on the whole, I’m grateful, given my mother’s capacity to interfere, that no one did pay attention. I was an adventurous reader from the start, because no one told me not to be, and I think that has stood me in good stead since.

Rich Horton

I don’t remember reading before I went to school either. In fact, my mother claims (I don’t remember this) that early in First Grade they were concerned I’d have to do remedial reading. But then something clicked — and I do remember that by the end of first grade I had read something north of 200 books (we were supposed to tell the teacher all the books we read, and she kept count), more than anyone else in class. (I had a good friend who WAS in the remedial reading group — I remember telling my mother that I was a yellow reader (or whatever — groups were given colors) and he was purple or something — I just thought that was a random division but my mother explained (later) that the class was divided by reading level.)

My mother did read to me (and my brothers and sister) before we went to school, though.

N. K. Jemisin

According to my father, I taught myself to read — but I’ve come to realize that Dad is sometimes a little bit of an unreliable narrator when it comes to stories of my early accomplishments. He also still tells people I was a virtuoso at the violin back when I played in the high school orchestra, which… no.

Anyway, Dad is a voracious reader, and me being a daddy’s girl, I apparently started picking up books and sitting beside him with them open, pretending to read, as a toddler.  I imagine the books weren’t always right-side up. He read everything:  history, philosophy, fiction, you name it.  He’s an artist, and he made it very clear to me that a good artist needs to be a bit of a polymath, exposing herself to as much knowledge and as many different forms of literature as possible so that she can have a clearer view of the world.  (He had already decided I would inherit the family talent for art, in some form:  his father was a musician, he’s a painter/sculptor, and I turned out to be a writer.  This was Fate.)  While I sat beside Dad, he pointed out letters and helped me figure out the phonics, and I suppose it must have seemed to him as though I taught myself, but probably I just learned quickly because I was frustrated by watching him do something I couldn’t.  I was a competitive little thing.

My mother isn’t a reader at all, though. She had books while I was growing up, including a lot of erotica; I’ve read them, thanks to a very boring childhood in a small town and too much time left to my own devices.  (Was never stupid enough to say, “Mom, what’s a zipless f*ck?” though.)  But she tended to get books purely because they were popular, and she took forever to read them, rather than devouring them the way Dad and I did.  And she had very clear ideas about what people of varying types — women, black people, Christians (as I was raised) — were supposed to read.

So Mom was uncomfortable with all the science fiction and fantasy I kept bringing home as I grew older, mostly because so many of the books had white characters on the cover, women doing questionable things on the cover, and the book summaries sometimes hinted at questionable religious concepts. I’ve heard Pam Noles speak of similar conversations with her father, in her essay “Shame,”  so maybe this is a conversation that all black parents eventually have with their geeky kids:  “Why don’t you ever read anything about us?” “Shouldn’t you read something more, I dunno, relevant to your future?” She was also convinced that SF/F would expose me to too much sex or “bad” sexual ideas — which was funny, considering I was sneaking Erica Jong out of her library — but also which, well, a lot of it was.  I remember she once came into my room and spotted the cover of I think Brust’s To Reign in Hell, which had a white woman riding a dragon while draped very sexily over it.  She read the back, asked me about it, realized it had something to do with a retelling of the fall of the angels, and got mad.  “I don’t want you reading things like this,” she said, and she took it back to the library on the spot.  For a long time I wasn’t sure what had offended her; I can’t remember there being any sex in the book, and the religious concepts were so abstracted from actual Christian lore as to not really be the same thing at all.  But I think she was reacting to a combination of things:  the obvious objectification of the woman on the cover — nobody rides an animal while posing like that, it doesn’t make any sense — the fact that the figure was the typical cliched delicate blonde white woman, while she was trying to expose me to strong black woman role models so that I could develop healthy self-esteem; and the fact that I was already showing signs of becoming an agnostic, for which she blamed SF/F.  (That wasn’t it.  I just spent more time daydreaming up story concepts than paying attention, in church. Probably came up with ideas for my first few novels there.)

So perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve grown up to read a lot of everything, fiction, nonfiction, you name it.  I still love SF/F first and foremost — but I question its racial and gender representation and tropes.  And I tackle the subject of religion a lot.

I don’t have kids of my own, but I am the happy “auntie” of a nephew (age 5) and niece (age 4).  They’re doing first readers for now, but I’ve already purchased their copies of The Little Prince, the various Shel Silversteins, and some other of my own favorite early books.  Their parents are dedicated readers too; their mom reads everything, but their father leans nonfiction only.  The only fiction I’ve ever seen him read is Heinlein, who at least occasionally includes brown people in his fiction — but I am very much not a fan of Heinlein since I read Farnham’s Freehold.  So I’ve got Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin already queued up, as a countermeasure.

Paul Graham Raven

This has been one of those conversations that really highlights how incredibly privileged I was as a child. The best way I can sum it up is that at no point in my life do I remember ever being told by my parents to stop reading… be it at family gatherings, on long car journeys, at the dinner table, in the bath, wherever. I was bought as many books as could be afforded, and I was introduced to libraries early on (which made it all the greater a joy to end up working in them for half a decade). My father wasn’t a voracious reader by comparison to me or my mother, but I can thank him for being introduced to sf/f by way of his colleagues in the mainframe computing industry of the late eighties. Geek culture has a way of seeping over; it’s a bit like capillary action, I guess. 😉

Beyond the family, of course, the rest of the world wasn’t always so friendly to a bookworm, but books themselves became a safe place into which I could retreat from such hostility. I strongly suspect that this “safe haven” status was amplified by by parental approval; as such, it’s arguably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given, and I used to love seeing kids come into the library where I worked and hassling their parents to take out books on their behalf so they could exceed the borrowing limits of their cards, just like I used to.

(As amending borrower records without permission would technically be a data protection offence, I can only assure you that at no time did I ever so much as even consider clandestinely extending the borrowing limits of any such young readers… *cough* *cough* )

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I remember, when I left home at the age of 19, suddenly realising I could read pretty much whenever and wherever I wanted, and that included through meals, was a revelation.

I also echo the sense of books as a safe place. I wasn’t a particularly happy child and became very solitary as a result; books were a place I could go and be happy.

🙂 I was convinced from an early age that librarians were the most wonderful people in the world.

4 thoughts on “Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

  • November 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

    My parents, wisely, wanted to know what I was reading fell in certain parameters. I don’t have issues with them not wanting me exposed to a lot of sex or foul language at a certain age, because I know I wasn’t ready to handle that stuff like most kids and I think parents have a responsibility as do teachers and others. I would certainly handle it the same way with my kids. What we write and what people read has influence and impact on behavior. It’s undeniable not just based on studies, but based on my own experience. Books influenced me extensively in how I viewed the world, things I said, how I acted, my desires, etc., so now, as an author myself, I take seriously my responsibility to write with care. I don’t believe in gratuitous uses of things but that they really must serve the story. Shock value isn’t enough to me. Nor is rage at the gatekeepers. That’s my own approach, I realize not everyone agrees. I self-censor even now what I expose myself too. Things that are too salacious turn me off. So I think it’s only responsible parenting to do that for kids. What I find a bit disappointing is that every August-September and January you go to bookstores and see the same 15 books labelled classics prominently displayed because kids are being asked to read those same books that I read. Ok, there are some great, not to be missed books on that list but who’s to say a lot of great, more contemporary authors whom kids might more readily relate to can’t serve the same purpose? With reading going down in popularity, particularly amongst boys, I think it’s ridiculous to not make an effort to get kids excited about reading by encouraging it however we can. More effort needs to be made to find books people are excited about and get them to read them. Even if they aren’t for credit. For example, I’ve heard of schools giving 5 minutes a day to read whatever you want. That’s a great start. I personally think 15-30 min would be better, but hey, school days are limited with curriculum demands, I get that. But certainly a mix of assigned and freely chosen for fun books would help encourage reading for many students as well. Lots of possibilities. Teachers should be created and be able to do so.

  • November 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I grew up with my mother reading to me until I was old enough to read for myself. I was precocious so I was reading adult adventure books from the age of seven onwards, e.g. Sax Rohmer, Dornford Yates, Sapper, and so on. Early in the 1950s I discovered SF, fantasy and horror, and never looked back. It’s been a life happily misspent and, of course, I blame my mother.

  • Pingback:Locus Magazine Roundtable | There Is No Easter Bunny

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *