I do not recall the first book that was ever read to me, however, it is a good bet that it was probably read by my Mom. She was always reading to us even from the earliest of ages. I have memories of my Mom reading “Goodnight Moon” to my youngest sister when she was only a few weeks old! There have always been plenty of books in our house. I remember when I was little, my sister Dalia and I would always hop into bed with my Mom and Dad when we woke up in the morning, for reading and snuggle-time. We were always read to before bed as well. Sometimes, as we got older and my Mom began reading us chapter books, we were allowed to stay up long past our bedtime, because we all wanted to see what happened in the next chapter, including my Mom! I consider myself really lucky, because as the oldest, with three younger siblings, (the youngest of whom is twelve years younger than me), I got to sit through many more bedtime stories than I would have otherwise. In fact, by the time Sami, my youngest sister came along, I was often the one reading to her. Even as I went into my teen years, I still liked to sit with my back to the doorjam, halfway in and halfway out of her room, listening to my Mom read to her, often the same books she read to me, with the same familiar intonations of words, relaxing my mind after wrestling with some annoying high school home work.
Strangely enough for someone who became so enthralled in reading and writing later on, my first lessons in reading were a little traumatic. Intelligence and academic achievement were very important to my parents and my Mom wanted me to excel beyond my peers at everything academic. One of her friends had a child my own age, (I think I was three or four at the time), who was already reading. Determined that I wouldn’t be left behind, my Mom decided she would try to teach me how to read. Unfortunately, I would not sit still for it and saw the imposition of reading as a test of wills between my mother and me, much like the arguments we had over what I should and should not wear. Reading quickly devolved into a battle of wills between us. Although I still the appearance of the books and the rhymes of the reading lessons my Mom taught me to this day, at the time I forced her to give up in frustration, because I insisted I would rather spend my time making up stories with my toys and playing with my younger sister, than learning how to read.
About a year later I entered kindergarden and quickly learned to read from our letter workbooks with the rest of the children in the class without a problem. This was all in Buffalo, New York and we did phonics based reading, printing and word recognition centered around workbooks that focused on one letter of the alphabet for a few weeks at a time. At the end of each workbook would be a story about a group of toys, (Bear, Doll, and their friend Flit, a firefly) and their adventures. At first, the stories started out very simply, gradually becoming more and more complex with each book. At home my Mom also gave me “Peter and Jane” Ladybird readers to enhance my reading skills. We read Dennis Lee and Dr. Seuss books together, too and these gave me a feel for the rhythmic qualities of language, as well as an appreciation for poetry.
By the time my family moved to Toronto, when I was in grade three, I was already reading ahead of my grade level. I especially liked Beverly Cleary, L.M. Montgomery and Roald Dahl books. By grade five, I was reading unabridged Dickens under my desk in Math class. Back then I spent about 30% of my waking hours reading fiction. No one had to prompt me to read, in fact it was quite the opposite. I used to bring my books to restaurants and in the car and my parents would get upset when I read instead of interacted with them. My teachers would always complain to my parents that I did not pay attention in class, preferring to read my own books under my desk. I would read at lunch, on the bus, when I woke up in the middle of the night, even walking home from school. Back then I had amazing powers of focus when it came to reading my books. I could read at an amazing speed and could burn through a few books in a week. I could block out all sound while reading, (including the yard bell) and totally absorb myself in a story and characters for hours at a time without a break.
One of the reasons I read so much, and continue to read is that my mind seems to have an endless thirst for entertainment and I sometimes find reality very boring. I think escapism has played a significant factor in my reading habits as well. By reading you can choose what world you want to live in for a bit, instead of accepting the tyranny of a situation that someone else has imposed on you. The years I probably read the most were also the years where I had the fewest friends at school and was teased a lot and ostracized on the playground. Sometimes book characters served as the substitutes for the playmates I craved.
Nowadays my literacy has declined from its peak of my preteen years. It’s harder now for me to focus my attention in such a laser beam-like way on a book and really give myself fully to it heart and soul. Although I still like to read, I find a lot more flaws in the books I read now. I get too impatient with them and always look at the back to see the ending. Now reading feels like more of an effort to me and I feel too distractable and tired to concentrate on it. Oftentimes I find the scenarios in the books I read to be trite and predictable. It takes a really extraordinary book to captivate my attention these days. However, I still read a lot more than many people I know.
One of the prime places I used to read was on the bus or subway or in the car being driven places. As I began to spend more time driving my own car, I couldn’t read as much. This posed a problem, especially because I quickly tired of the pap on the radio and began to hunger for juicy narratives to accompany me on my journeys from place to place. I then discovered audiobooks. So I “read” a lot of audiobooks now as well, usually while biking, driving or walking places.
I’ve always found writing to go hand in hand with reading for me. Whatever author I’m reading, (or listening to), I become influenced by their style and begin producing written works in that style. When I was reading a lot of Romantic poetry in high school I wrote poetry in that style. When I was reading gothic novels I wrote gothic short stories and when I was studying screenwriting and films I wrote screenplays. When I watch comedy skits I write comedy skits and when I started working as an ESL teacher and a teacher’s aide at a public school in Los Angeles, I began hearing more children’s novels, so that’s what I started writing as well. Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a series of young adult fiction books I’ve been working on for the past two and a half years.
I really appreciate all the books, scripts, plays, poetry, movies, TV shows and comic books I’ve read over the years. They have given me a huge backlog of narratives, settings and characters to draw on in my writing and because I’ve absorbed so much I get some pretty unusual combinations of style, plot and characters in my work.
I ended up doing a double major in English Literature and Film Studies at the University of Toronto. I really don’t understand the way English Literature is taught in university—with the reading and analysis of literature completely divorced from the creative act of writing it. It is often the same way with Film Studies. In university I noticed that some scholars who write about film and literature who have never actually tried to create examples of the type of work they seek to analyze often get things wrong, (especially in film). Certain things are just not practical or possible because of the nature of the medium, technology, historical issues or prevailing cultural norms at the time. I see literature and film in a similar way to science, in that students should be encouraged to “get their hands dirty” rather than just sit back and pontificate upon topics. I believe that practicing literature and poetry is the only way to truly understand it from the inside out. It’s really a shame that creative story writing is often removed from the standard English curriculum in high school to make way for more snooze-worthy essay writing.
One of the reasons I believe it is so important for children to read is that I think it really enhances their ability to feel empathy with people in many different situations of many different backgrounds. Books like those of Judy Blume can also help demystify things that confuse, embarrass or frighten children that they may not be able to articulate to adults. Also, I think reading and writing can be very empowering for children. By writing, and becoming the gods of their own little worlds, children can feel a sense of authority, empowerment and dignity often denied to them by the adult world, feelings that hopefully can be transferred into an increased sense of confidence when dealing with others.