The Reluctant Reader

Memory is an imprecise thing. So many important milestones are lost to me. I recall years of Saturday morning swimming lessons, but I can’t pinpoint when I began to feel confident in the water. I remember long afternoons coasting down my sloping backyard on my red BMX bike, but I have no idea when I began to pedal myself over the flat sidewalk in front of the house. And for all the many happy memories I hold of reading as a child—and I was, like many introverts, an avid, passionate reader—I can’t look back and say there it is, that’s the moment when I learned how to read. It just seems like I’ve always been reading as I’ve always been swimming, and riding a bike, and talking. I can’t access what it was like to not know those things. They’re fundamental to who I am.

But whether I remember it or not, at some point in my youth, with the help of teachers and my parents—and who knows who else—I acquired the skill of reading. Slowly, I’m sure. I wish I could rewind and unpack this lengthy process so that it would help me now as a parent, coaching my six-and-a-half-year-old son towards literacy. Instead, I have to do a kind of compassionate detective work, an imaginative act of empathy akin to the magic of reading itself, to attempt to figure out what he’s feeling and experiencing when he holds a book in his hand.

Because the thing is, even the son of two hardcore bookworms (my wife, like me, breathes books) needs to learn how to read. There are children who pick up literacy almost on their own, and at early ages. Although introverted, my son is not one of them. He has many wonderful skills, a vivid imagination, and a sharp intellect, but reading has required intense effort on his part.

Introversion is multifaceted, and my son’s brand isn’t quite like mine. Take, for example, his opinions on train stations. In my view, New York City’s airy, majestic Grand Central Terminal clearly ranks far ahead of Pennsylvania Station, a 1960’s-era labyrinth of corridors buried beneath Madison Square Garden. Felix disagrees. “I feel like it’s hugging me,” he said about Penn. “Grand Central is just so big. I never know where we are in there!”

For a little guy like Felix, Grand Central is too grand, while Penn Station seems more secure, finite, knowable. The walls stand nearby; the ceiling lurks overhead instead of soaring to the stars. There’s less to see in Penn Station—it’s not a tourist destination, a center of commerce, or a site of art installations like Grand Central—and little to do except navigate to where you’re going. The very things that freak me out about Penn, the claustrophobic closeness of everything and everybody in tight passageways lit only by fluorescent tubes, make him feel safe.

Similarly, while I may love burrowing into a thick novel, lush with details and buzzing with dialogue, too many words on a page overwhelm Felix. He loses his way amid the lines and begins to rush, nervous, to reach the end. He turns the P of panda into a puppy, or he jumps to incorrect conclusions based on context clues. Even if he guesses a word that’s close to the actual one, chances are by page’s end his tiny errors have snowballed and he’s gotten lost in the vastness of the page, not fully understanding what he’s reading.

“Slow down,” I tell him. “Be patient.”

It’s going to take him some time to feel comfortable enough to move at a steady, calm pace through a page crowded with words, which are no different really from the cacophony of voices and art and shops and space in a cavernous hall. Our eyes, instead of our ears, may register these utterances, but they’re all going to the same place—the brain—for processing.

So, for now, we tiptoe from picture books to early reader chapter books. Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series, for example, or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series—both short chapter books whose pages feature plenty of white space and lovely, smallish illustrations—fall into a sweet spot. Bigger books require rehearsing. He can read most of Dr. Seuss, but he needs me or my wife to do it with him the first couple of times. We sit next to him on our sofa, gently correcting his errors. We wrap our arms around him for physical comfort and support, the same way we hold his hand in Grand Central. We take a turn when he becomes fatigued. We provide encouragement. And sometimes, as all effective coaches must, we adopt a sharp tone and tell him, “You’ve got this, don’t give up now!”

Then, when he’s demonstrated he can do it, we pull away, insisting he do it alone. (I still read in the room with him, but I have my book, and he has his.) This isn’t always easeful. He wants us there with him for every sentence—we’re his safety rope for comprehension. He’s incredibly hard on himself when he doesn’t perform perfectly. One small mistake can seem like such a gigantic obstacle that he tosses the book aside, convinced he can’t read it. He often reads so much better than he thinks he does! So, we take every opportunity we can to compliment him and remind him how proud we are of his budding literacy.

This confidence game can be tough, though. He sees classmates reading all kinds of books—Harry Potter, for example—and wants to do that too. I remind him that reading is a process. He’ll get to that point eventually. This is a challenging lesson for adults to learn, but for a first grader? Forget it! I’m pretty sure he doesn’t quite believe me when I tell him that part of reading, at any age, is moving back and forth between books that are simple, pure pleasures and books that challenge our brain and imagination. I also look up words in the dictionary, I tell him. I become frustrated when I read something I don’t understand. I sometimes feel bored by a book and must force myself to finish it.

He rolls his eyes in responses to these pep talks. I can keep my “journey”—he wants LEGO sets, which present a kind of challenge he’s already mastered. What he forgets or is still too small to have perspective on is how for a couple of years he only built LEGO from instructions although now he fluently creates all kinds of things guided by inner vision. He’s mastered the fundamentals of LEGO architecture, and so he ventures off by himself into imaginative lands without need of a map. Children (and lots of adults) don’t see how the process of going from what was once scary, unfamiliar, and very, very big to what’s now natural comfort and ease can be universally applicable in learning anything new.

He’s getting there, though. The rehearsal time he requires before confidently reading a book alone is shrinking. And a few times he’s delightedly surprised himself with his ability. Most importantly, he agrees with me, if reluctantly, that reading is fun and amazing.

Although sitting down alone with a book for him is still a bit more like visiting loud, bright, and big Grand Central Terminal than comfortable, dim, and small Pennsylvania Station, there are trains and trips to other lands in both places. He’ll get on board one day without worry or anxiety, finding pleasure in the relative quiet of a book. Perhaps he’ll even forget these early struggles with literacy. Though likely not, now that I’ve recorded them here for him to read with ease one day.