I saw the T-shirt on display behind the register of my local indie bookstore, as I succumbed, yet again, to rampant bibliophilia.
Had to have it.
Oh yes, there was one in my size, in blue. The store owner smiled as she added it to my total. “I can order it in red for you, too. I tell people the color stands for being well-read.”
As I returned to the store to pick up the red Lit happens T-shirt, I thought about literary people being well-read. Bibliophiles. Bookworms. I thought about the shirt my aunt made for me decades ago, with iron-on letters spelling Bookworm: “Because you always have your nose in a book,” she’d grinned.
I turned the the idea of lit happens around in my mind, from being well-read to learning how to read: Literacy happens.
How does literacy really happen?
Research immediately tried to crowd my head, for a big part of my bibliophilia is professional. My shelves at school and at home are lined, overflowing, in fact, with books on growing readers and writers – how to teach, assess, reinforce. Every bit of it is powerful.
But I pushed the research back for a little breathing room, to think about my own path to literacy. How did I become literate?
It’s anything but strategic or elaborate.
Sure, my grandmother read to me from the time I can remember – the same books, over and over, until I could anticipate and recite the words before she read them aloud. I didn’t ever think of my parents as readers – they were big TV watchers – but I do have a memory of my mother reading “Sleeping Beauty” aloud to me, deliberately changing the name to “Beeping Sleauty.”
“No no no!” I am laughing hard. “Her name is SLEEPING BEAUTY.”
“Oh, that’s right,” says my mother, turning the page. “Let’s see if the prince uses his sword to cut through the thorns to find Beeping Sleauty.”
The sound of the transposed name is hilarious; I dissolve with laughter. My mother begins giggling, which means we will be laughing for a while – her cackling is utterly infectious.
It was wordplay, not word work – not intentional, just being silly.
So much fun.
My parents had one bookshelf in the living room, containing a set of encyclopedias, (including, oddly, medical encyclopedias, maybe thrown in with the purchase of the standard set), old dictionaries, high school yearbooks, an avocado green Living Bible, and a set of children’s literature anthologies, Through Golden Windows, by Grolier. The book titles: Mostly Magic, Fun and Fantasy, Wonderful Things Happen, Adventures Here and There, Good Times Together, Children Everywhere, Stories of Early America, American Backgrounds, Wide, Wonderful World, Man and His World.
These anthologies contained a multitude of classic stories and authors; I read some of them over and over while eating my breakfast cereal until the covers were grimy with use, particularly Mostly Magic. In these books I first encountered Medio Pollito, the little half-chick, Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes, Tom Sawyer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Daniel Boone, Robin Hood, and so much more.
An excerpt from the dedication page of Through Golden Windows:
What can books give to a child that is growing up in today’s curiously complicated world? Many things, we believe, although the evidence is not altogether conclusive. Facts and information, of course, about almost everything; understanding of himself and others; confidence and security; fun and laughter; friends and friendships; escape from reality at times – all these are the possible results if the right book is used with the right child in the right way.
But suppose the right book is not available? … Or suppose parents and teachers do not know the right book? Many, by their own admission, do not know children’s books well. Must the child’s values in reading be left to chance, while he struggles with everyday problems, or grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book?
That was written in the “curiously complicated world” of 1958. Well before I was born. Thirty years before the World Wide Web. Before much of the educational research lining my shelves was begun.
What strikes me are the words “grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book.”
That, I believe, is where the path to literacy lies, in getting that first taste of rapture from a book. The right book mentioned by the Grolier editor in 1958 isn’t a “just-right” book referenced in reading education today, one that is leveled, that a child can read without too much difficulty. The right book could actually be a magazine or blog or site. The right book always was, and always will be, one in which the reader immerses so that the word “reading” doesn’t even seem to fit the process of pursuit, the wanting more, the needing to know, the absorption of the ideas and images, the stepping out of self.
Note that I didn’t mention school in my early path to literacy – for the bulk of the literate life occurs outside of school. Many of my friends and teaching colleagues say that they didn’t enjoy reading until they were grown. That’s an awfully long wait for the full rapture.
When the words become more than words, when they become the window, the gateway, to all that lies beyond what one can immediately see, arousing a driving desire to get through and drink it all in – that’s the rapture.