By Susan Wilson
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA
Is there anything as magical as a child becoming a reader? Observing my granddaughter evolve from being a reader of picture books to seeing her sitting on the beach, deep into her chapter book, has been a rapid-paced journey of pride and gratitude. It's where I see myself most in my granddaughter, in her burgeoning love of reading. Don't misunderstand, she also loves videos, and games, and bedazzling, but it's her nose in the book that makes my heart sing. She has discovered that glorious ability to step away from reality and dive deep into fiction. Okay, I'm a fiction writer. This is nirvana for me.
I remember being that child. I'm old enough to have come up through the Dick and Jane era, and recall that visceral thrill when Mrs. Lindquist—see I remember her name!—began a new edition. She used these giant readers, big enough for the whole class to see, and she'd go through each page as the class chorused the words. Maybe it was rote learning, but it was learning to read, and in short order I was hooked on the stories of two nice little white children with a propensity for good behavior. They ran! They had a dog! See Spot run! Even more exciting, they had a friend named Susan. My name in print! To be fully honest, I was also an unabashed television watcher, as much as it was available in those thrilling days of yesteryear when a clear picture depended on the tilt of the rabbit ears: Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Lassie. Not surprisingly, what I wanted to watch was anything with animals in it. But books were what entertained me best of all. One of my earliest recollections is of climbing the backstairs in our two-family house in Providence, to the apartment where my mother's Uncle Willis and his wife, Everline, lived. They were childless, having married late in life, and Aunt Everline was a kind, if quiet, aunt who would take me on her lap and read Margaret Wise Brown's magnificent Mr. Dog, the Dog Who Belonged to Himself to me over and over. I was at least as fascinated by the story of the indomitable dog as I was by her hearing aid with its flesh-colored earpiece and long cord trailing to a box she kept clipped to her belt. Nowadays we'd think she was listening to her iPod.
Little Golden Books were my gateway to literature. Fairy tales and animal stories, cautionary tales and sheer nonsense. I loved them all. From Little Golden Books, to chapter books, to the best gift my mother ever gave me, Collier's The Young Folks' Shelf of Books. This was back in the day when competing supermarkets would offer things like dinnerware or encyclopedias, each edition of which could be collected weekly if the shopper's expenditures qualified for the cut-rate price. So it was with the Collier's. This eight-volume set formed the basis of my independent education and to this day I think I know something because I read it in "Myths and Legends," or "Stories of Boys and Girls," or "Poetry from Around the World." My favorite, naturally, was Volume 7, "The Animal Book." Filled with the best writers of the time—Steinbeck, Kipling, Anna Sewell, and the redoubtable Margaret Wise Brown—I read pretty much all the classics in child-sized portions.
It's still possible for me to get lost in a book, but I find it harder to get into the spell that reading once provided for me. That may sound like a strange admission for someone who writes for a living, but I'm convinced that it is because I write fiction, I have a harder time entering "the dream," as the onetime favorite author of my adulthood, John Gardner, called it. I don't so much enter fiction any more as study it. It may also be a symptom of my susceptibility to distraction. If I sit on the deck, I'm distracted by the never-ending parade of birds on my feeders. If I sit in the house, I'm distracted by whoever else is in the house and is there a cup of tea being made? A story on NPR that shouldn't be missed? The dog wants her afternoon biscuits right now. Put the book down and pay attention to me! Nonetheless, I manage to read about a book a week, sometimes more if I enlarge that highly desirable block of time between the first cup of morning coffee and the second when I have to climb to my loft office and start work on my own fiction.
So, for me to witness my seven-year-old granddaughter reading her book instead of watching the movie we've rented for her, my heart beats with an almost jealous pride. Jealous because she has so many books ahead of her waiting to be discovered. Jealous because she can block out the activity around her and fall into the dream. What's fun is that she is only just wrapping her mind around the fact that I write books. When she was a kindergartner, she came home all excited, a real live author (her words) had come to her school. When her mother asked her if she understood that her own grandmother was a real live author, it didn't impress her in the same way. That was then. This summer we were together when I picked up a Fedex mailer. Nothing escapes her notice and she wanted to know what it was for so I mentioned having to send my edited manuscript back to the publisher. She thought about that for a second then asked, "What's it about?" I always have a hard time synopsizing a finished book until I have time to hone the message, so I gave her a quick, child-sized version of the story. And my granddaughter asked then: "So, who is the main character?" My heart burst with joy. My rising second grader of a granddaughter has become a thinking reader.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. She and her brother, just entering kindergarten this fall, have been read to since birth, and are lucky enough to live in a high-achieving school district. Her parents lead by example, and her extended family is rife with education professionals. Plus, one of her grandmothers is a writer. Still, you can't force a love of reading, and, I think, you can't stop the juggernaut once that love is sparked.
Pretty soon I'll bring out the whole set of Collier's volumes and stand back. My hope is that she and her brother and their cousin, will find them, and love them as much as I did.