Education guide

Now you're reading, you've joined the best club

by Rebecca Thornburgh
Posted 4/18/24

If you’re reading this, you belong to an extremely special club.

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Education guide

Now you're reading, you've joined the best club


If you’re reading this, you belong to an extremely special club. Before you get really excited, do realize that this is not a particularly small or exclusive club. Let me torture you with some math: The world population as of January 1 was a bit over eight billion (8,019,876,189). Three-quarters of those folks, or just over six billion (6,014,907,141.75), are at least 15 years old, an age pegged as a benchmark for achieving literacy. And just under 90% (all right, it’s 87% for you picky ones) of that age and up are people whose reading skills qualify as literate

This means that you, dear reader, are part of an elite global group of just a tad more than five billion fellow readers (as in 5,232,969,213.32). Congratulations! 

So, yeah, you’re not alone in this reading thing. Billions of other people could list it as a skill. Let’s just pause for a moment to recognize and celebrate the truth that you are a person who has been fortunate enough to be introduced to the complete and utter miracle that is reading

Confession: I am a book person

I have always 100% identified as a reader. I grew up in a charmingly small town in western Pennsylvania where, as a free-range after-school child of a single mom who was a teacher, I was allowed to walk five blocks from home to the library by myself. So I did, literally every couple of days, toting home a teetering pile of hardbacks to devour. 

My sister, just a year younger than I, was equally voracious in her reading habit. We were rather famously known (small town, remember?) as the ‘Reading Sisters.’ Adults everywhere would stop us to tell us about this exciting series of books that had ten or twelve titles and they just knew we’d love them. “Already read ‘em,” we’d sigh, thanking said kind adult, and then secretly exchanging a sisterly eye-roll. Our harassed mom once cleared every last book out of the kitchen and environs to keep us from dawdling over some library book — only to find my sister deeply immersed in the tissue-papery pages of the phone book. 

I knew from a very young age that I’d have a life in books. As we were gathered at the family dinner table one night my father inquired of his seven-year-old Becky what she thought she’d like to be when she grew up. “A BOOKMAKER!” was my visionary pronouncement. My dad, who as an assistant district attorney could have prosecuted me for that illegal pursuit, thought this was utterly hilarious and fell off his chair.

From bookish childhood through bookwormy college to truly bibliomaniacal adulthood, I’ve been reading all the while — from Betty MacDonald, Madeleine L’Engle, Joan Aiken, and Louise Fitzhugh to Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, and so much more, including every mystery novel ever and of course every Stephen King horror thriller — to this point where I am now literally a bookmaker. (Hi, Dad.) I’ve spent most of my professional life as an illustrator of books for kids, producing over 130 or so published titles. Recently girded with an MFA in writing for children and young adults, I now identify as a writer as well. 

Of course, my husband is also a book person. Our pleasantly spooky Victorian Gothic house is literally (hah) spilling over with books, filling a hodgepodge of shelves that range from the solid library built-ins to hand-me-down hulks and decades-old-falling-apart cheapo faves from Ikea. Countless others are stacked in teetering piles on just about every available flat surface. 

David prefers non-fiction and biography, while I collect not only novels but picture books, graphic novels, and middle-grade chapter books. We both love humor, so of course we have a complete set of Pogo and all the Dave Barry books ever. Our daughters’ contributions include manga, Terry Pratchett, YA, comics collections of Calvin and Hobbes and Bone, all the books in at least seven different series about brave dragon-riders determined to save the kingdom, and a whole swath of pulpy romance paperbacks (when as a teen our older daughter’s now-realized aspiration to become a writer swerved in that direction). 

Reading is magic

What’s truly inspiring (and important) to think about this: being able to read is MAGIC! 

How magical is it that you can look at a collection of random shapes that are simply dark marks set on a light surface, and somehow be able to see each one as a distinctive, decipherable thing — whether it appears as hand-drawn centuries-old blackletter script or goose quill-scrolled copperplate calligraphy, or scribbled cursive on a post-it? You can see it as a thing that has a specific meaning. 

Next, you’ve figured out how to perceive the patterns these shapes can create; you’ve learned to discern that, combined in various ways, these mystical shapes can twist themselves into specific and varying meanings – which may be as mundane as the care instructions on a t-shirt tag or as sophisticated as the stanzas of a Shakespearean sonnet. That is a skill that identifies one hundred percent as real magic.

Most people learn to read around the age of six or seven. Learning to read is a process, and it’s different for everyone, usually unfolding over several years. 

Around two, a little one may start to recite the words of a board book. Has she simply memorized them? Who knows, but it’s definitely how things start. By the time this budding reader reaches preschool, she may be able to name at least half of the letters of the alphabet. In kindergarten she’ll have all 26 firmly in hand and will start matching those familiar letters to words she sees in print, maybe even recognizing a few words without having to sound them out. 

By second grade, our young sprout will most likely be someone who can recognize words, sound them out, and understand these words in a sentence. 

That miraculous moment

In all that’s magnificent about reading, what’s truly magical is that first moment, you realize you can read. 

Born in 1880, Helen Keller was a toddler when she lost both sight and hearing after having scarlet fever. When she was seven, a determined young tutor named Anne Sullivan arrived at her Alabama home to try to teach (and maybe tame) the frustrated and rebellious little girl. 

Within a month, a bonafide miracle happened. As water poured from a pump across Helen’s palm, over and over again Sullivan patiently finger-spelled the letters W A T E R into her other hand. Keller was able to realize that objects have names and that this series of distinctive pressures she was feeling in her palm was the way to name that cold wetness across her other hand. 

“A new light came into [Helen’s] face,” Sullivan later wrote about that moment. “Within hours, she had learned thirty new vocabulary words.” 

To me, this amazing moment of epiphany perfectly captures what it feels like suddenly to awaken to the new kind of understanding that is reading. 

From shapes to letters to words

I don’t have a memory of my own earth-shattering moment when the shapes fell into letters which then grouped themselves into words, so I’ll offer instead some family anecdotes. 

Our older daughter Blair fell headlong into an ocean of reading without a single gulp or bubble. Strapped into her toddler car seat en route to the beach with her dad, the three-year-old announced “Daddy, the road is going to end soon.” My startled husband said “Whuh?” (or something equally intelligent) and Blair pointed a chubby finger at the sign ahead: “Road ends.” Clearly, he was going in the wrong direction. After that, Blair the reader was off and running. We’d thought her ability to name all thirty or so titles on the back cover of any given Berenstain Bears paperback was a mere toddler party trick. But when, during kindergarten, she devoured every one of the iconic Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, we figured out that, yeah, she’d been able to read for a while.

When our younger daughter Alice first presented as a reader, I was making an extremely infrequent visit to our local wine store and she was tucked into the shopping basket’s rider seat. As we turned into the aisle, she looked up and, pointing her chubby toddler finger at a sign far above her sweet little head, pronounced “JUG WINE.” (How she managed to decipher those extremely unfamiliar words is a total mystery to me. She certainly had never seen them anywhere in the hallowed spaces of her own home.) 

I looked around at the other shoppers to see if they’d heard my kid pronounce this decidedly adult phrase. I was torn between excitement, pride and, well, uh…just a tad of embarrassment. But okay, I knew it’d make a good story. 

David recalls that at around five, he was over the moon when he figured out he could read the word ‘the.’ (Yes, it’s a bit underwhelming to have that rather pedestrian, most ubiquitous of all definite articles to be one’s first time, but still ‘the’ is a word.) After this life-changing discovery, he spent hours poring over his dad’s hefty tomes to point out to his bemused parent the myriad appearances of said small but significant wordlet. 

I can assure you that now, years later, David’s reading has progressed well beyond his mastery of this three-letter word.

You didn’t do it alone

All this is to say that, no matter how or when you learned to read, you had someone with you on that journey — a parent, a teacher, an older sibling, or a babysitter. That someone who sat with you and helped you figure it out. Maybe you were on a lap, or sitting criss-cross applesauce on a kindergarten rug. Let’s hope you weren’t sitting in the shopping cart at a liquor store. 

Think of all those kind, patient folks who helped as you worked to make sense of those squiggly shapes, and celebrated when you discovered the indescribable joy and magic of words linked into meaning.

For some people, reading is like breathing. They do it without thinking because it’s something they simply have to do to stay alive. For others, it’s a means to an end. Either way, it’s all good.

So what kind of reader are you? Are you a capital R reader – someone who reads for pleasure, escape, enlightenment, or inspiration? Or is your reading practice about information? Do you use reading as a means to get you further in a process, like in completing a form, confirming an order, or describing a product or a project? 

I know one thing about you as a reader. Here you are, reading this admittedly facetious little essay in a newspaper — how has that been for you?

Where you learn to read and how you learn to read is specific to you. But however your story goes, what’s really important is that you did it. Here you are, a reader. Welcome to the club.