I don’t remember actually learning to read; it’s as if I always did. Although we grew up poor (five children to feed, clothe, and educate), my parents always had books in the house. And then of course, there were the books we inherited from my grandparents. My very old copy of The Wind in the Willows, with those simple yet beautiful illustrations, is still on my bookshelf. Ratty and Mole were my heroes (and still are!). Other old friends are The Secret Garden, with exquisite color plates, The Water Babies, Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, my collection of the Lucy Fitch Perkins’ twin series, with her poignant stories of children of all eras and places around the world. I particularly loved Anne of Avonlea, The Little Princess and many others.
The list of children’s classics is endless and not so long ago I read them all over again. I ‘inherited’ an African foster child from a disadvantaged background. This little girl came to me at age eleven, practically illiterate, scoring only 19% for English at school. Opening the doors into the wonderful world of books seemed insurmountable because she simply did not understand the connection between the written and spoken word. What to do? Begin at the beginning seemed a good idea.
I started off with my old favorites and Mabel loved them. Suddenly, the words were not frightening because she was hearing about places and people she’d never imagined. She’d lean over my shoulder, breathing down my neck as I read, my finger tracing the words as I sounded them out. The pages began to surrender the magical words, and she found them enchanting! Fired with success, we moved onto the rest of the library, slowly devouring my children’s classic book collection in very tiny bite-sized pieces. I was still doing most of the reading.
One day, Mabel decided she’d help out with the books, and began reading to me. It was still incredibly slow but I began to see the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. We got movies of books, watched them, and then read the books, just in case the movie makers had left out some important bits. We expanded our repertoire book by book. I found other ways to sneak words into her day, not just when we were doing ‘serious’ reading. She read recipes with me when we baked; she read the instructions on the packaging to me while we prepared dinner; she read advertisements to me when we shopped. Suddenly words were a constant part of her life.
Mabel also began to show her imaginative side at school. Her poems and creative writing pieces began to change, reflecting more color, bigger words, more complex themes and emotions. What a breakthrough! The final moment of success came when just recently she turned to my mother and said, “Gran, will you buy me a book?”
My mother nearly fell off her chair and replied, “You can have as many as you like, darling.”
Mabel grinned. “Oh, then can you buy me all the Twilight books please?” Thank you Stephanie Meyer for being the first author Mabel ‘owns.’ (Apparently vampires rock.)
Her latest marks for English? A magnificent 75%.
“I can do much better,” she said, frowning. “I’m going to have to improve on this if I want to be a writer.”
I have now adopted Mabel, not having my own children, and I can say the greatest compliment is that she has decided to become a journalist or a novelist (just like me).
Recently I called her and, hearing her voice coming from her bedroom, asked, “What are you doing?”
Reply: “I’m reading!”
Music to any parent’s ears!
Fiona Ingram was born and educated in South Africa, and has worked as a full-time journalist and editor. Her interest in ancient history, mystery, and legends, and her enjoyment of travel has resulted in The Secret of the Sacred Scarab, the first in her exciting children’s adventure series (linked to Dawn’s review). Her first book in the series was inspired by a real trip to Egypt with her two young nephews and her mother.