The first book I remember getting lost in was Fun with Dick and Jane, a basal reader published from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. Determined to catch up with the boys, I somehow cajoled my older brother into unlocking the mystery by telling me what the words in the book were. Afterward, I settled in on the front porch glider, alone and very focused, sounding out word after word all by myself and experiencing a series of exhilarating moments.
What seemed like a good idea at the time — and you wouldn’t have been able to stop me had you tried — sort of backfired once I started school and got bored straight away. I resorted to amusing myself by creating conversation bubbles on crayon and manila paper art projects, memorizing all sorts of things (like the number of coat hooks on the back wall of my classroom), dreaming up little practical jokes to play on classmates, and such.
[Before I go any further, I feel compelled to offer a heartfelt apology to all you educators on behalf of my kind. We didn’t mean to add to your difficulties, we just couldn’t help ourselves.]
Fast forward to 2005 when I took up writing beginning readers. They were created for a friend named Robert who lived in the apartment building caddy-corner to my house. Robert was a retired truck driver who lived alone and sometimes stopped by our house to pick up home-cooked meals I’d set aside for him. As we got to know each other better, it came to light that he had never actually learned to read. For a moment, I was distracted by the idea that someone behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler couldn’t decipher such signs as “Road Closed Ahead” or “Oncoming Traffic Does Not Stop.” I jerked my attention back to the conversation and asked him whether or not he, in fact, wanted to read. He said he did, but that when he borrowed children’s books from the library, besides the print being too small, they just didn’t command his attention.
No doubt. I remember being peeved by the excessive repetition in my childhood reader, and I was only four and a half. “Look up. Look up, up, up… …Run, Dick, run. Run and run,” etc., ad infinitum.
“So if you had something interesting to read, would you try again?”
“What kinds of things would you like to read about?”
“Things like the Chicago Fire and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” (Whoa. Bye-bye kiddie stacks at the library!)
I agreed to start researching both topics and compose two short books to read with him. I embraced the challenge of telling the stories in nearly all one-syllable words. Because of Robert’s significant vision impairment, it was necessary to print the readers in a 24-point Times font. I put the freshly published pages in slim 3-ring view binders with spiffy title sheets in the front pocket and presented them.
“Here you go, Robert, some “adult” reading for you. Which story would you like to read first?”
“The Chicago Fire!” he shot back with glee.
Somewhere between a cow kicking over a lantern and the fire jumping the river, we took a break and glanced in the rear view mirror to admire his accomplishment. To my surprise, he had a retained a strong recognition of consonants and their sounds, so his progress was rapid. Clearly encouraged and optimistic about his prospects, he eagerly scheduled another session so he could tackle the next segment of the story. After he devoured the first two books, I continued in the same vein. A little research into the history of the trucking industry yielded a third reader that tickled his fancy. For about three months I had more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
The piece de resistance was the last book we read together. Early on he had shared that one of his motivations for wanting to read was so he wouldn’t be relegated to listening to recordings of the Bible any more — he could read it for himself. Consequently, I decided to write the story of the three Hebrew young men who stood up to the king of Babylon from the third chapter of the book of Daniel. Unbeknownst to Robert, I had embedded the two verses containing their challenge to the king’s decree, verbatim from the scriptures, toward the conclusion of the story. After he had sounded out each of the words I asked him to reread the passage. This time it was only slightly halting. And the third repetition was much smoother.
“Robert, do you realize what you just did?”
“That part I just had you read over and over — it’s from the Bible — word for word. You just read the Bible!”
The look of satisfaction that began to spread across his face as he recognized what he had done was priceless. Our budding reader was out of the gate, off and running, and we had a little party for two.
Sadly, Robert moved away rather suddenly right after that special session together, but among the things he took with him were several unconventional beginning readers. He also left behind a rich deposit in my heart.