I don’t remember when I couldn’t read. I think this is less because I was so young (I don’t know how old I was), and more because nothing really memorable happened until I could associate it with what happened to the characters in my book. I also don’t remember when I realized that other people lay claim to my books. I do know that at thirteen it seemed imperative to cross out “Dear Reader” in the last chapter of Jane Eyre and write in “Dear Shannon” and that now when I see hipsters invoking Anne Shirley I want to challenge them to a Lucy Maud devotion-duel.
So I might not notice when my daughters get, or lose, or get again, their teeth. I may be unaware of the leg-shaving milestone until I brush against a bristly shin. The first swipe of mascara may pass relatively unremarked, but I know when they cross that threshold from non-reader to reader. From faltering sounding-outs through the breakthrough book to unfettered abandon in the world of words. The breakthrough book is a milestone like no other, the book they first stay up with, unheeding of the clock, alone in bed, mouthing the words, sentences tumbling recklessly behind gleeful eyes in the brain that has unlocked the mystery of innumerable universes.
For Avery it was Harry Potter. When she was four years old I spent a few frustrating weeks trying to get her to sound out random words, sessions that ended in tears and shouts and frustration. I gladly threw out my half-baked phonics ideas and went back to reading for fun. A Florida public kindergarten taught her sight words, I stayed out of it, and then halfway through her seventh year she started on the Sorcerer’s Stone and a few months later finished the Deathly Hallows. Thank you, J.K.
With Callie I reluctantly followed her preschool teacher’s recommendation of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, a super-prescriptive phonics program-in-a-book that a lot of people really like. It was pretty painless, and the best thing was that it ensured I spent fifteen minutes each day sitting down with Callie and only Callie. Then Callie went to kindergarten and in first grade her fluency was lagging a couple grades behind her comprehension. Her eyes would glide effortlessly to the right edge of the page, finishing off the sentence, her teacher observed, while her mouth stuck back on an easy word, sounding it out as she had been taught. I despaired. Those phonics! A couple weeks ago she borrowed Avery’s copy of Rapunzel’s Revenge, a graphic novel by Shannon Hale, and a couple days after that I went in to kiss her goodnight, expecting a snoring, limp, heavy head, and there she was, sitting straight up in the middle of the bed, knees tucked up beneath her, tilting over Rapunzel’s Revenge, slipping and sliding through all of the lovely words, sentences, paragraphs, fast as anything. Thank you, Shannon Hale.
Lucy is my third child, my third daughter. Avery has a vocabulary that rivals Tom’s and outstrips her pronunciation at times because she has not heard in conversation words she knows from books. (I love that.) Callie is strong-willed and good at math; melts down quickly when things don’t come easily. Lucy is the color-er, the imagine-er, the helium-voiced observer of older sisters that I hadn’t really pictured knowing or needing to know how to read. But she’s five, she’s going to the same preschool Callie attended. Her teacher talked up the 100 Easy Lessons book at school and Lucy begged and begged. I hemmed and hawed, I didn’t think she was ready, didn’t want to deal with her disappointment and frustration when it was too hard. Didn’t she want to go play with her stufty Tigress?
She did ten lessons that first day. I should’ve started her six months ago. It is effortless, almost. She is Scout on Atticus’ knee, absorbing the newspaper. How did I read her so wrong? What if I read one of them more wrong on something not so easily remedied?
We are halfway through the 100 Easy Lessons, and I recommend it with reservations. This time I am de-emphasizing the sounding out and encouraging the sight-iness. We play sight word bingo with mini marshmallows and sight word parking lot with the Dolch sight words. I did make flash cards at first, but bingo and cars are much more fun. Callie and Avery quiz her on the way to swimming.
I can’t wait to see what her breakthrough book will be, and how they’ll surprise me next; may it always be a good surprise.