Saturday, July 24, 2010

Confessions of a late starter

When I was young I would visit my Aunty Win and Uncle Wes a great deal. I loved them both.  Uncle Wes seemed a giant of a man with hands like shovels. Aunty Win used to knit until artheritis bent her hands so that she could not hold the weight of wool. She tried to teach me to knit and I would watch her threading a single strand into intricate patterns of arran, but though she was patient, try as she might to teach me, the secret of how to knit evaded me.
When I was young I struggled to learn to read. I could read, but slowly. Words would jump around and I failed to catch and hold them. I would borrow books from the library, pretend to read them and take them back. School could be tricky sometimes. I still remember being given The Grapes of Wrath to read when I was about 14. I was supposed to read it then talk about the book for 5 minutes in front of class. The book was dirty, the type so close together, pages thin as tissue so the type came thrugh from the other side. And I was 14. I did try, but found the dense labyrinth of type on the pages inpenetrable. So when it came to do my talk, instead of saying, I tried but I really couldn't read this book but couldn't I made up some nonsense about it being boring. What followed next could have put me off books for life.
I wasn't by any means a bad child at school. I was one of the invisible ones who kept their heads down and got on with work. So to be torn off a strip and shamed infront of the class to the point of tears was awful.

Anyway, one day I saw a knitting pattern for a fairisle jumper. I wanted the jumper and I taught myself to knit, not just with one colour but with many.
And I wanted stories. I think the first 'big book' I read was Call of the Wild. I found that if I held a postcard beneath the lines I was reading it would keep them still on the page. One line after the next until I was lost in a wild wilderness. I still do this when I am tired. And now I read and write though it has taken me years to say, when people ask me what I do, that I illustrate and write books.
So in some way this explanes how I got to be 48 before I read To Kill a Mocking Bird. I heard Meg Rossof talking about the book on Radio 4 and bought a copy, partly because I have always been intrigued as to why it is called To Kill a Mocking Bird. What a piece of perfection it is as a book. I still don't understand the title. I don't believe that the mocking bird is Tom Robinson. More likely it is Boo Radley. Or perhaps it is the incocent trust that children have in adults to do the right thing, always. Whatever, the observation, the telling of a tale, the characters within the book, 50 years after publication sing as true as ever. I wonder, were the book marked with an 'age banding' as publishers wanted to do recently, would it have survived for so long?
I still can't read Steinbeck. Maybe one day. And I do believe that it is a sin to kill a mocking bird.


  1. In the movie, The sheriff tells Attcus that if people knew that Boo had helped Scout and Jem, that all the ladies in town would be bringing him pies, and that with his shy ways, it would be a sin to do that. Scout tells her dad that it would be like killing a Mockingbird, (eluding to when Atticus told Jem that he could shoot all the bluejays he wanted, but he must never shoot a mockingbird because all they did was sing and offer enjoyment to others and to hurt one would be a sin).

  2. I was lucky enough to see 'To kill a mockingbird' at the theatre when I was in my teens (it was during A Levels as we were reading the book).
    It was wonderful!

    And my Nan taught me to knit as a child...something I wish I kept up with as now she's not around to re-teach me :(

  3. What a lovely posting. I feel for that child you were. --Jane in the U.S.

  4. A lovely and special book, To Kill A Mockingbird. And the movie was so touching...

    I was an addicted reader as a child, but sometimes the words would fly around on me,too, (allergies caused some of it) and that was always upsetting. How wonderful of you to think of putting a post card underneath. That is what I will do, now, whenever it happens.

  5. I learned to read so early and so easily. I think I was aware, even at the tender age of 6, that I was being handed the world on a plate. It seems criminal to me that other's shortsightedness and ineptitude barred you from that wonderful world for so long. Childhood is dangerous country. No one comes through it unscathed.

    Harper Lee never wrote another book. I think she realized she got it right the first time.

  6. It sounds very much as though you are dyslexic. Some of the children I teach describe the words as moving on the page. I hope that us teachers no longer humiliate children; instead we have found that changing the background colour of the paper helps, or using the filters.

    I have found that some of my so called illiterate children are often gifted with the most amazing imaginations. You just need to find the right medium for them to tell their stories. I have used drawing, dictaphones, photographic story boarding or drama, all the best stories start life as the spoken word.

  7. I am so impressed with your cleverness at figuring out a way to make reading possible for you. I never would have the idea that the land of the written word was not a place that you were totally at home with, given your clear and lovely prose.

    The Grapes of Wrath is one of the terribly depressing books that schoolchildren are forced to read. I never understand why so many of the books that are assigned to young people in school are so often ones that basically have as a subtext "life is hard and then you die", (when there are other books, even by the same authors sometimes, that do not have that discouraging message) Should you ever want to try reading Steinbeck, I would suggest "Sweet Thursday" which is much more accessible, is somewhat humorous parts and even a little raunchy here and there. (But do not do what I did as a girl and insist on reading "The Red Pony"..."but Mom, look, the book has a picture of a pony on the front"... just saying, it is a completely depressing book.)

  8. Better late than never, right Jackie?


  9. I too taught my self to spell and read after being terribly humiliated in front of a class, dyslexia runs in my family, mostly females, not all and in various forms.There are now four generations.
    Those who have it are the nicest and the most artistic,I think our school systems have much to answer for but some are realising what it is, but still not all.
    This is in Australia.

  10. The way that you combine words and painting is a wonderful gift, one which, I suspect, demands much from you in terms of creative energy.
    I read To Kill a Mockingbird before the movie came out--I have to say it is one of the few book to screen conversions that does justice to the inetgrity of the book itself.
    I wish I could say I had ever conquered the distress of mathematics as well as you have handled your reading issues. I was told by my high school guidance councelor that my mother had been an excellent math student, therefore I must just be lazy.

  11. There are gifts given to people, and yours is one that, like the physicist, I am totally in awe of.
    The way you see the world is unique, but what really impresses me is your application. I have been reading this blog for months now, and am so impressed by the sheer hard work you put in. Perhaps I had a vague idea that illustrators dabbled in fits and starts, and just happened to make it into print. Perhaps I imagined someone with a gift absent-mindedly drawing at the kitchen table, then waiting to see what happened.
    It may have taken you a while to find your feet, but you seem to me to doing exactly what you should be, and bringing joy to so many people at the same time.

  12. Jackie, I've always been a bookworm, and I'm 44 and have never read "To Kill a Mockingbird"'s still on my 'to-be-read' list. Luckily, I'd discovered the joy of books BEFORE I was given a Steinbeck at age 16, otherwise it could quite possibly have turned me off reading forever too! "As I Lay Dying" is probably the most horribly depressing book I've ever read, God knows why they give them to teenagers! I'm going through something similar to your experience with my young daughter at the moment, so can understand the frustrations and the pain you experienced as I see her struggling with the same things. Thankfully, schools and teachers have changed their attitudes these days. You are a true inspiration.

  13. Jackie, like you, I have learning disabilities (with math and reading). And at 62 I am still a voracious reader. Much thanks go to my father who saw the problem and gave me a small red wooden ruler to guide my eyes when I was 6. With that small bit of tender compassion I was off and running with my truest friends (my books) and I've never looked back. Thank you for sharing.

    I myself do not like Steinbeck's fiction, however I find myself going back again and again to one of his non-fiction works: The Log From The Sea of Cortez. It is about a collecting trip to Baja California with his Marine Biologist friend Ed Ricketts circa 1940 -- it truly is a wonder filled book and towards the very end Steinbeck waxes lovingly on the virtues of laziness or how one should pursue their leisure time -- quite intoxicating. Enjoy !

  14. Thats a nice post. My granny had the same problem when she was a child.She told me that her parents made a new alphabet book specially for her,with extra pictures and all that.

    When I was too little to read my mom used to read those fairy tale books with beautiful pictures my sister borrowed from the public library.So I fell in love with books even before I could read! I still remember looking at the pictures in The Enormous Turnip and those beautiful green fairies inside the covers and Goldilocks's curly hair!!

    Ever since I got the membership of our public library I've been reading hundreds of books with and without pictures(including To kill a Mocking Bird and excluding The Grapes of Wrath).But well, its books with images that I still love the most.

    Art is an amazing thing that could lure people to do surprising things. I hope you'll lure lots of children into reading with your work!!

  15. Jackie, thanks for telling this inspirational story. There are so many twists and turns on the pathways to the same goal--in this case learning to read (or knit)--and many get lost on the way but hopefully get their eventually.