Many years back, we introduced Academic Nook here at GatheringBooks. This space is meant for educators, teachers, professors, lecturers, librarians, school personnel, teacher-assistants, teachers-in-training, teacher educators, guidance counselors – to share their thoughts and insights about books (picture books, YA fiction, graphic novels, adult books) that moved them. It is with great pleasure and pride that I introduce a higher-degree student of mine at the NIE, Tanya He, who has graciously agreed to share her reading journeys with us.
Academic Nook: Tanya He
Reading was my predictable friend.
Even though I can’t remember what the picturebooks read to me as a baby were about, the warm feeling of safety and satisfaction are unforgettable. My mother was so keen to teach me to read that she bought all manner of phonics book sets, and one in particular came in a giant blue box adorned with anthropomorphic animals. I can only recall the box because the teach-your-child-to-read types of books in it were dry, dull and even to my toddler’s sensibilities, rather disparaging. Not that I knew the reason why I did not like those belittling types of phonics books back then, but I knew that I wanted to hear The Hungry Caterpillar and Goodnight Moon over and over again more than ‘A’ is for Ap-p-le.
Mum realised that the blue box was gathering dust and I’m grateful she happily gave it away and until today she is convinced that The Hungry Caterpillar taught me how to read. No mum, you did. By taking the time and reading these picturebooks to me repeatedly until you fell asleep you taught me to read. I still have these books and the stain-splotched, care-worn and thumbed-through state of them embodies their constant and consuming friendship with my toddler self. I learned much from their structure, repetition and predictability, unconsciously committing the patterns to memory and getting a toddler-ish pleasure from knowing exactly what happened next.
Reading was my playful friend.
Surprisingly, preschool was filled with climbing up tree houses and playground equipment, painting and colouring during arts and crafts, learning addition, subtraction and multiplication tables, and splashing around the waist high water table filled with plastic toys; but reading was a home and personal activity. My favourite books then centred around P.J. Funnybunny, who was a rabbit who wanted to be anything but a rabbit (he even dangled upside down to try to be a possum), and The Jolly Postman, who delivered letters to all the folk in fairy tale-dom, from Cinderella to the Giant to the Wolf dressed as grandma.
I would carefully open up the pages that were designed to be envelopes, pull out the letters, postcards, and flyers (there was even a one pound note in one of the birthday cards), and devour the correspondences between all my beloved fairy tale characters, enjoying how their lives continued on outside of their stories. I still recall my mother telling me that while it was okay to open up others’ mail in my postman book, it is wrong to open anyone else’s mail. I became obsessed with mail. I wanted to be a postman. Mum indulged me by buying me The Jolly Christmas Postman and my own letter writing kit. She received lots of letters from the gingerbread man, P.J. Funnybunny and all the Disney princesses, complete with actual stamps that I cut out from her discarded envelopes and glued onto mine.
Reading was my quiet friend.
In primary one, I basked in the attention of being the only child in class who read fluently and who could do ‘voices’. My English teacher Mrs. Lai had me read the big books aloud all the time, and the principal (I was in a Catholic school and she was a nun) called me to her office (I thought I was in trouble for running in the rain the previous week) to ask me to read from the bible during mass. The tiny girl with bushy hair reading aloud was my public self, but I kept my bookworm self private. In fact, if I wasn’t asked to read aloud I was quiet, doodling in the margins of my worksheets or hiding a book beneath my desk to read. Now, as a teacher myself, I’m certain Mrs. Lai knew I was reading but chose to let me be.
The first Roald Dahl book I came across, again bought for me by mum and lovingly inscribed with my name and my class ‘Primary 1 Daisy’, was The Magic Finger. My very first spunky, tomboyish, rebellious female heroine! This is still my favourite type of heroine. Esio Trot, The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory followed soon after but while they were great reads, I didn’t fall in love again until Matilda. In Matilda I saw myself. It didn’t matter that Matilda Wormwood was Caucasian. If I ignored her surname, and looked at the pictures drawn by Quentin Blake, she could be me. Matilda was her smart, book-loving self even in the face of her own parents’ ridicule and she said to the mousy, timid part of me that it was okay to want to live in your own head and to believe in your own quiet power.
Reading was my dependable friend.
Due to the economic downturn, my dad lost his job and my family went through a period of financial difficulty. I went from coming home to my mum, my grandpa and our maid to an empty house. Schoolwork at upper primary was rather boring as well, as I earned easy ‘A’s without much effort. It was at this time that I discovered detective fiction. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Babysitters Club had immersive plots and puzzling mysteries whilst always having closure at the end. Since money was tight, it helped that these books were available at the public library in abundance. I read so many of them, sometimes a book every day, that it became really easy to pick out the perpetrators myself before the protagonists caught on.
Perhaps because my Primary Six English teacher, Mrs. Tan, knew of my family’s financial trouble, one day she slipped me the thickest, heaviest book I had ever seen. Chicken Soup for the Soul. I never knew short-stories could pack such a punch! I read that one and returned it to her, then stumbled upon the rest at MPH. Every weekend, while my parents shopped for groceries, I would stand along the shelves, reading as many Chicken Soup short stories as I could. When I graduated from primary school, Mrs. Tan gave me her copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It now belongs to one of my students who needed it as much as I did.
Reading was my kind and forgiving friend.
In secondary school, I discovered my passion for long distance running. My small size, oodles of stamina and high pain threshold coupled with a drive to train and compete put me at the top of my school’s cross country team. For the next three years I ran and studied, and forgot about reading. It was never a conscious decision, it just happened, kind of like a marriage that ended in a fizzled out divorce without the usual waterworks and diatribes. Halfway through Junior College, my knee gave out. There was denial and painkillers, anger and surgery, depression and rehabilitation. But there were no more cross country competitions. So I stayed depressed, until an old friend, who forgave my three year abandonment, who didn’t take offence at my sour attitude, or steer clear of my thunderclouds of angst, who didn’t need me to talk or play nice, came knocking. This kind and forgiving old friend introduced me to a new friend, Harry Potter, who then introduced me to Frodo Baggins. They helped me build castles in the air and escape from feeling like a failure. They brought fanfiction into my life and I read all the work I could get my hands on. They encouraged me to dabble in writing my own fanfiction. My old friend, reading, saved me from myself even before I knew what it was doing.
Reading is my sharing friend.
Mrs. Lai and Mrs. Tan would be proud to know I’ve joined their ranks. As a reader and a teacher, I’ve always tried to bring my books into the classroom. Not too long ago, I commiserated with a fellow reader about how inconsiderate people students, whom we lend books to never return them to us, and I cited holes in a number of box sets as evidence of their evilness. Eight weeks ago, while sitting in a master’s degree class studying Multicultural Picturebooks for Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) and looking around at the fifty plus picturebooks our teacher had lugged to class in a luggage bag to share with us, I felt very small: How did I become this stuffy Scrooge of books?
In that very same class, when the story Pete and Pickles prickled my eyes with tears, I felt tiny: When did I start scoffing at Picturebooks? A few weeks after that, when we read Each Kindness, I felt miniscule: Have I ever shared a book that wasn’t by and for a white audience with my kids? I should take pride and joy in all my missing books because they have gone on to impact the lives of my students in the way they have impacted me, and they should remind me to lend out the rest so that they can be the start of someone else’s collection instead of a hole in mine. I should use multicultural books to give my students mirrors so that they value themselves more; and windows into the cultural lives of others so that they can empathise, participate emotionally, and read for social change and justice. Most importantly, I should read picturebooks with them because there is something inherently inclusive about the innocent packages they are wrapped in and something universally human in the themes and subtle messages they contain.