Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

James Patrick Kelly

Although I was a voracious reader as a boy, I don’t believe I could read before I went to kindergarten.    My parents were occasional readers, as I recall.  Certainly I can’t picture shelves sagging with books anywhere in the house.  I remember my mother reading to me and my brothers, but this was not a nightly occurrence.  In fact, it was probably because she didn’t  read to us enough – in my opinion —  that I was motivated to learn to read.  The library was several miles away (wait, I’ll googlemaps this … aha! 2.4 miles!) and I remember that the kids’ borrowing limit was five books, which typically lasted me about a week in grade school.  After I sped through my allotment I would ride my bike to the library for my next fix.  In bad weather my mom would indulge my weekly cravings.  As with some others, I was often admonished to put my books aside and get outside and “play.”    My reading varied ranged from “junk” like Tom Swift to “improving” like Random  House’s Landmark Books – a history series — and Grosset & Dunlap’s abridged Junior Illustrated Classics – literature.  I still have a couple.  Here’s my Huckleberry Finn (Classics) and The Barbary Pirates, (Landmark) written by C. S.  Forester.  I had forgotten that Forester wrote The Barbary Pirates – he was (not much) later to become one of my favorite writers.

I read pretty much every night to my daughter until she was six or seven.    Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman (yay!) Berenstain Bears (gaah!)  When she was older our favorites were the Oz books – L. Frank Baum only please.  Ruth Plumly Thompson could never hit the right notes.

Brian Evenson

Some of my early memories are of my mother lying on the couch reading Agatha Christie novels.  She would get so absorbed in them that you could speak to her and she wouldn’t respond unless you were willing to shake her out of the world she’d fallen into.  My father was a bit the same way, both parents reading a lot whenever they had a spare moment.  They read aloud to me and my siblings too, but I think more than anything my own interest in reading, and probably in writing as well, stems from the way they modeled reading to me.  Even at a young age, I could see that reading was for them an essential and nourishing activity, something that they loved as adults.

That was much more important for developing my interest in reading than, say, the summer reading programs at the library where you read enough books and then got to be part of a pizza party.  I enjoyed those programs, but they defined reading as essentially a kid’s activity and they also made it about something else:  it wasn’t about reading but about getting the pizza.

Gardner Dozois

Nowadays, kids are admonished to get inside and play, because it’s not safe out (as far as the parents are concerned).  They may not be reading in there, though.

Tim Pratt

I couldn’t read before I went to Kindergarten (well, mostly — my Mom says I taught myself to read the names of crayons, because I’m colorblind, and the only way to avoid coloring the grass orange instead of green half the time was being able to read enough of the labels to tell the difference). I was a quick study, though. I remember in third grade my teacher took me outside the classroom after we’d all taken some reading skills standardized test, and I was terrified I’d done something wrong, but she just told me I was reading at a high school level and offered me extra time in the library. The other nice thing about that test was that my mom stopped saying any particular books were “too old” for me, which led to me reading all the King, Koontz, and other horror on her bookshelves. (I also knew enough not to ask questions about the sex bits, which led to an 8-year-old trying to figure out what a “blow job” was based on little more than the name. I recall my theories were rather outlandish.)

Gardner Dozois

Your challenge, Tim, now becomes to write a sex scene based on your childhood conjectures as to what a “blow job” might be.

Stacie Hanes

Oh, THAT reminds me…

My mom didn’t restrict me…much. But there were a few related and probably revealing incidents from my childhood.

At some point early on, my parents had bought me the Childcraft encyclopedia set, and I read them cover to cover, with enthusiasm. But anything I heard about or read about that I didn’t know, I didn’t hesitate to look up in the big encyclopedia or dictionary at school. In second grade this led, after overhearing a conversation on the bus, to me looking up “sex,” which led to a lot of technical knowledge and no understanding whatsoever–which I then relayed to my mother in lecture form a short time later.

…which might have been why she reacted to that copy of AC Crispin’s V novelization the way she did a few years later. My dad had taken me to Wal-Mart, and I spotted a paperback I wanted–I was about 10–and I asked for it. He said yeah, sure, and bought it for me. I got it home, and mom took one look at it, and took it away from me. But she didn’t keep it. She actually read the whole thing herself, and covered objectionable passages with correction fluid.

It took me about six months to figure ut that the fluid could be scratched off, and I still didn’t know what “wazoo” meant.

Paul Witcover

The Childcraft Encyclopedia . . . a Lovecraft compendium suitable for wee ones?

Cat Rambo

My ne’er-do-well uncle sold those! We had the complete set, plus one that was an encyclopedia of animals. I spent many an hour with both, plus a book about wildflowers that is the reason I can spot a trillium at 50 yards to this day.

Stacie Hanes

I loved mine! Loved, loved, loved them with a very great love. The ones on anatomy/biology, plants, the ocean, dogs, puzzles, and numbers were my favorites. My parents bought the annuals for as long as they could afford it.

I don’t know how expensive they were, but they sure got used.

Gardner Dozois

An indescribable horror!

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Why not? As I’m sure you all know, there’s an artist on line who is posting his re-write of “The Call of Cthulhu” as an illustrated Dr. Seuss parody.

It’s just a matter of time before Baby’s First Necronomicon is de rigeur.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

Heading off at a slight tangent, this reminds me of one of the encyclopaedia sets we had at home when I was a kid, the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedia. It was already hopelessly out of date in the early 1960s, when I first started reading it but it had certain features I adored, like lots of fairy stories and folk tales, told in a rather ornate and old-fashioned style, which I read and read and read. Also, there were beautiful colour plates, and lovely old black and white photos. I could spend hours with it.

My parents got rid of it at some point after we all left home but during my first major visit to the book town of Hay on Wye, about 25 years ago, I noticed sets of it going cheap in a number of the shops, and decided, on my next visit, to buy myself a set for old time’s sake. (It is almost impossible to buy a set that does not have a battered volume 1 and a battered volume 10, which was of course the index.) It sits with my complete set of Beatrix Potter stories and I am glad to have it there.

Gardner Dozois

There’s also a Lovecraftian version of the Peanuts comic strip.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Gardner proposes, Stefan disposes:

Paul Witcover

And then there’s the horror of . . .

Karen Joy Fowler

And you’ve probably all seen Pat the Zombie

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.

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