a sample chapter from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
CHAPTER TEN—p. 1
See also Handbook
ADDRESSED HERE FROM CHAPTER 10
CHAPTER 10: A Hyper-Kid's Road to Reading
How a Father, a Five-cent book, Secret Stuff, and One Young Teacher Led to This Book
It would be nice to think my father knew what he was doing, but I doubt it. (He died before I could ask him.) He was probably just trying to keep things from getting worse.
Jim declares he had nothing to do with young friend's injury.
A likely story!
The problem was me, and the fact that we lived in a second-floor apartment and I was out of control a lot of the time, causing enough collateral damage in the complex to provoke some of the residents to get up a petition to have us evicted. Fortunately there were enough people who liked my parents (a lot more than liked me) to nullify the petition.
So my father would come home from work at night (he worked in sales for a manufacturing company, the only non–college graduate in his department) and my mother would hand me over to him as though they were doing a prisoner swap. “Here, take him,” she would say. Years later she told me, “They didn’t have the term in those days, but if they did, you’d have been the poster child for hyperactivity.”
With time my father found something that calmed and focused me— he read to me. He read the library picture books we had in the house, but mostly he read what he liked to read— the evening newspaper and The Saturday Evening Post. It became a nightly ritual, and by the time I was four years old we were doing the comics page every night. (Those pages eventually became such an integral part of my life and my brother’s, we’d give them up for Lent— our ultimate sacrifice.)
In the beginning, my father had to explain things like the satire in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner strip, but gradually it all fell into place. I got the humor eventually understood the relationship between Dagwood and his boss, Mr. Dithers. Li’l Abner set the stage for my later readings of Mad magazine. Years later, in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, a long line of people waiting behind me forbade my telling an aged Norman Rockwell about the hours my father and I had spent poring over his Post covers and their meanings. But I wanted to.
Most important, those nightly readings helped me understand what reading was really all about. By the time I reached first grade, I knew this reading stuff was going to be worth whatever I had to go through to get it— all those flash cards and work sheets.
But there was one memorable stop before first grade, an afternoon when I met my oldest literary friend. It’s a book called Junior Literature, and it sits across the room from me as I write this. On its flyleaf is penciled “5¢” in red. It’s a junior high school English textbook, published a decade before I was born. Its contents include works by Frost, Longfellow, Twain, Whittier, and Kipling, along with Jonathan Swift, Anatole France, William Cullen Bryant, and Theodore Roosevelt. Most junior and senior high schools would take a pass on it as a text today.
But one day in 1946, on my way home from kindergarten at Connecticut Farms Elementary School (Union, New Jersey), I passed the public library next door to the school and thought, Whoaa! There were tables on the front lawn and books were not only out on the tables, they were for sale! It was my very first encounter with a yard sale, or the annual book sale common at most public libraries today.
While the situation was confusing to me (I thought they were selling the library books), of one thing I was certain: Right in front of me was a book whose title I couldn’t read, nor could I read anything in its 613 pages, but I wanted it. Furthermore, it was only a nickel!
Why did I want it? First, there were three pirates on the cover, embossed in gold. Second, inside were more pirates, as well as kings, archers, swords, and damsels in distress. And third, it cost as little as a comic book.
I had the largest comic book collection in
I raced the two blocks home, secured the nickel from my mother, and fled back, fearing it would be sold. But it was still there— the first book I ever bought all by myself.
In the years that followed, that book and I were like neighbors— not especially close at the start, but it was reassuring to have each other there. I sensed from the start the book was different from others, that there was important stuff in it, like having a college professor living next door, someone you didn’t just drop in on unannounced.
As I matured, we became closer, and I would read a short piece here and there when I’d run out of “regular” books and the library was closed. I didn’t realize it was a textbook until I was in high school. Nonetheless, by then we were old friends. It was the first book I totally owned, and its draw was adventure— pirates, knights, etc. You could say it was a “guy thing.”
The same thing would later draw me to comic books, of which eventually I would have the largest collection in the neighborhood and trade them endlessly with friends. In fact, although we didn’t own our own house until I was in seventh grade and every car my Dad bought until late in life was a used car, our home was awash in print: encyclopedias, newspapers, and magazines.
The mailman once complained good-naturedly to my father that my mother subscribed to more magazines than anyone else on his route and it was breaking his back. Long before we could read, the Trelease boys were big print perusers, paging through the magazines and catalogs that came in the mail almost every day.
A behavior update here: Along the way I calmed down considerably, although my mother still complained I was a “street angel/ house devil,” and she was more right than wrong. The calming was a good thing, because the next stop after Connecticut Farms kindergarten was first grade at St. Michael Parish School across town.
This was 1947, the war was over, and classrooms were overflowing. At least they were in St. Mike’s, especially my first-grade class: one Dominican nun (Sr. Elizabeth Francis), one room, ninety-four kids. Teacher’s aide? Yup. He was hanging on the cross in the front of the room. It was all she needed. That and a look that could melt glass.
I don’t know how the other kids felt about the flash cards Sister was holding up in front of the room, sounding out letters as we chanted them back to her, but I thought they were boring. (Not that I shared those thoughts with her.) I just sat there waiting for the good stuff to start—stuff like The Saturday Evening Post. She did finally begin to read aloud to us, and not what you’d expect. Not picture books— Lord knows we had enough of those with Dick and Jane readers. She read chapter books to us and we loved them enough to give up recess if she’d just read one more chapter, please, Sister, please?
So with little pain or suffering, and in spite of the horrendous pupil-teacher ratio in the class, I learned to read. And life was good and the books got better and better, especially Jack London’s Call of the Wild in fourth grade (unassigned). It was the best ever, and all others would be compared with it for the rest of my life.