8th September is International Literacy Day, a day which is celebrated annually worldwide as an occasion to promote literacy for both children and adults and highlight its importance to individuals, communities and societies. To mark it, we reflect on our own memories of learning to read…
Growing up, bedtime stories were a highlight of every evening. My sister and I had very different tastes in books and so had a complicated rota for whose turn it was to choose the story and in whose bed the story would be read! I don’t really remember when we started reading ourselves rather than being read to but I do have clear memories of having the chicken pox when I was 7 and working my way through every single Famous Five book!
Before I could actually read, I memorised Peter Rabbit and would recite the whole thing, turning the pages in a pretty convincing imitation of reading! The first books I properly read on my own were the Josie Smith books by Magdalen Nabb. I loved these so much that my mum wrote a letter to the author and actually received a handwritten reply! Magdalen was particularly taken with my name as she was living in Florence at the time – “The City of Flowers”, which she lamented was increasingly more populated by cars than flowers…
I don’t remember the first book that I read completely on my own but I do remember the first books that I read together with my parents. We had several books from the Puddle Lane series which had a simple sentence on one page for me to read and then a more detailed paragraph on the opposite page for my mum or dad to read. They were great as I felt like I was reading on my own but still getting a full story. I also enjoyed reading books by Shirley Hughes, particularly the Alfie stories and the book Dogger. Another favourite was Burglar Bill, which I can still quote lines from now and which I look forward to reading with my son when he’s a bit older. I loved reading books (or being read to) from a young age and always looked forward to bedtime stories.
I have always loved books, but one of my main motivations when learning to read was so I could decipher the very glamorous – and not very feminist – women’s magazines that were stuffed down the legs of my mum’s leather boots in the wardrobe in my parent’s bedroom, all red lipstick and impossibly large hair. In fact I always wanted to read things I probably shouldn’t: I can remember being fascinated by Shirley Conran’s Super Woman for quite some time; most of the text meant very little to me, but here was a book entirely about grown-up, real knowledge, to be read when no-one was looking.
Reading has always been a very important part of family life for me, and the house I grew up in and my grandparents’ house were always full of books with shelves occupying most available wall space. We would have books regularly sent over from Finland for birthday and Christmas presents, and Mum, Dad, Naini, Mummi and Vaari, along with anyone else that could be cajoled, would read to us at bedtime. Our summer holidays driving across Europe to Finland always started a week or so before departure with a visit to George’s bookshop in Bristol, so we could select the books to keep us occupied in the back seat. I’ve written about Muumipeikko ja Pyrstötähti (Comet in Moominland) being one of the first books I remember reading on my own for a post on World Book Day so I won’t say any more about that here. The first book that I remember getting in “trouble” for reading was JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It was the classic story of a young child not realising that his parents could see the hunched shape and the torchlight visible through the blanket that seems so funny in hindsight. Dad later admitted that he would always let me “get away with it” for half an hour or so before telling me it was really time for lights out… I cannot imagine a life without the pleasure of reading, and a love of books must surely be one of the greatest gifts you can give any child.
Find out more about International Literacy Day on UNESCO’s website.