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My reading life

As a child, I really struggled to learn to read. Everyone else in class seemed to know what letters were called and what sounds they made; I couldn’t even remember seeing the letters before.

To add insult to injury, I also reversed letters when I wrote them down. Did the line fastening the two horizontal bits of a Z start on the left or the right? Did the tail on an ‘a’ go on the left or the right side? Did ‘e’s face left or right? For a child with the letters Z, e,l,a,h in her name it was a real pain. ‘L’ and ‘H’ quickly became my favourite letters.

I didn’t know then that I had dyspraxia, which is often tangled with a bit of dyslexia. In fact, when I went to school in the seventies, the condition hadn’t even been identified. 

And so my early years were spent being told off for not paying attention. The infant teacher sent pink remedial flashcards home in batches of 100 with instructions to learn them… or else.

At that point my luck changed. First, the cards that came home were pink and the words were written in a comic sans font. Even now, my cynical self says this combination was more by luck than judgement – but who knows? Dyslexic readers often benefit from words written on pastel colours; it reduces the contrast between black and white, which makes it easier for the eye to read. A comic sans font has little flicks at the end of the letters, which draw the eye along the word, making it easier to process. So the cards were much easier to read than the black-writing-on-white -paper I was given at school.

Secondly, I was profoundly lucky to have a family whose one overriding characteristic was that they were kind. My mum never criticised or pressurised; instead, she would sit going through cards in small batches – maybe 5 in one go – and if I got two right would exclaim “wow! That’s brilliant! You’re doing really well. I challenge you to get three…”

My grandma, Eva, was cut from the same cloth. She would do flashcards in the bath. But she really had motivation nailed. For in the depths of her voluminous handbag, she always carried Callard and Bowser butterscotch sweets and Dairy Milk chocolate. And success meant… a sweetie! Of course, being the softie that she was, any success – 1/100 – meant a sweetie. So, I saw the flashcards as a game and enjoyed all the praise and success, and gradually learned to read.

After that, I worked my way through the Ladybird books – Peter and Jane, moved on to more advanced Ladybirds – The Magic Turnip, The Elves and the Shoemaker… and then came the magical day when I stood reading to the teacher at her desk, and at the end she said ‘okay, from now on you can pick what you want to read off the bookshelf!”

Oh, the joy! The freedom! The pure pleasure of reading Elizabeth Beresford’s  The Wombles, Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, John Antrobus’s glorious Help, I Am A Prisoner in a Toothpaste Factory!…

And then we moved town, house and school.

And the new school - a junior school (for children aged 7-11) was a nightmare. I was clumsy, terrible at sports and excruciatingly shy. 

Bullied, lonely and isolated, I turned to books for comfort. I had the run of the bookshelf of the new school, too, and books quickly became a source of comfort and solace. Of course, in a school that catered for up to 11s, the books were more advanced, and I was soon reading voraciously. Ursula Moray Williams’ The Little Wooden Horse, Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, George Layton’s The Fib and Other Stories, Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, and Anne Digby’s Trebizon series all made it onto my bookshelves.

Secondary school (for 11-16 year olds) proved to be even more arduous than primary, but by now I was reading voraciously and excelling at English. On my dad’s bookshelf I discovered Dick Francis, Ed MacBain, Alistair MacLean and Len Deighton. In the school library, I encountered Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (which really introduced me to the adult short story – I strongly recommend you try Lizerunt), Barry Hines’ The Blinder (which inspired my love of writing dialogue), and Alan Sillitoe’s powerful, gritty Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. In English class, I discovered Shakespeare, Dickens, E. M. Forster, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Evan Hunter…

Simultaneously, the local library introduced me to  romance novels, and I was soon a huge fan of Penny Jordan, Robyn Donald, Michelle Reid, Sharon Kendrick, Helen Brooks, Susan Napier, Carole Mortimer… in fact, my friend Fiona and I fell into a routine of walking home together – and every night I would make up a new romance story for her!

Unsurprisingly, I chose to study English at A level and then for my degree. I found I love poetry; renaissance poets like Sir Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe, the metaphysicals like John Donne and Andrew Marvell, the romantic poets including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley. Simultaneously, I was enjoying prose – Austen, the Brontes, and more modern writings, especially by Jewish American authors such as Roth, Malamud, Bellow and Singer.

As you can probably tell, spending three years studying for a degree by reading wonderful literature was a great pleasure for me!

Since then, I have read widely in all sorts of genres. Last year, I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and this has helped me to discover all sorts of wonderful new authors.

Nowadays, I read for pleasure, for my degree, and to enhance my writing skills.

Follow my wide-ranging adventures in reading on Goodreads here

Let me know what you love to read – variety is the spice of life!

In the meantime, I wish you many wonderful hours spent curled up with a good book!

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