I have read for long stretches of time over the past few days. Do you ever do that? Let all of your responsibilities slide and head out to another world for half a day? I hope you do.
My book world has been Brooklyn in the early 1900s. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith, 1943) is a coming-of-age novel that I rediscovered while I was creating my Christmas book tree.
It’s my second time reading the novel (my first was decades ago), and since it has been so long, I have forgotten most of the story. Ms. Smith wrote a novel that was both successful (300,000 copies sold in the first six weeks) and banned (she included the unsavory parts of Brooklyn life). I’m halfway through the novel, and I’m not surprised at all that many people loved it and many people wanted it off the shelves.
Like any good coming-of-age story, this one has several scenes of childish joy. Today I read a passage that touched the childhood section of my heart, and I thought that you would enjoy it, too.
Francie Nolan is the main character of the novel, and her early school years were tough due to her family’s poverty and the ugliness that came with an overcrowded public school. Yet, the narrator says, “always there was the magic of learning things.”And so it was that way when Francie first learned to read:
For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word. But one day, she looked at a page and the word “mouse” had instantaneous meaning. She looked at the word and the picture of a gray mouse scampered through her mind. She looked further and when she saw “horse,” she heard him pawing the ground and saw the sun glint on his glossy coat. The word “running” hit her suddenly and she breathed hard as though running herself. The barrier between the individual sound of each letter and the whole meaning of the word was removed and the printed word meant a thing at one quick glance. She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read!
From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.
“Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!” is how the chapter that holds this precious passage begins.
I wish I could remember the exact time of my “magic hour.” I wonder if I was reading alone or with my mother, a sibling, a friend, or one of our cats.
No matter. It happened and, just like Francie, the world became mine.
What special memories do you have of learning to read?