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Every Reader Tells a Story

By Donalyn Miller — July 26, 2009 2 min read
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When I was five years old, my mother banned me from reading in bed with my flashlight because I burned my ear one night falling asleep with the bulb against my cheek. Two weeks later, Mom discovered me asleep in the dry bathtub, clutching my pillow and my book. Undaunted by the flashlight ban and driven by my desire to read, I crept into the bathroom and read with the door closed. My mother, recognizing how much reading meant to me, bought me a reading lamp and a stack of books to go with it. I trace my reading personality back to this time. I still prefer to read late into the night. Now, I leave the light on as long as I wish.

My husband, a die-hard comic book fan, would refer to this tale as my origin story—the beginnings of my lifelong reading habits, which influence my behavior to this day. Traveling the country, I meet lots of readers, and each one possesses a reading origin story, a childhood experience where their love of books and reading began.

Meeting Emmy winner, Leslie Jordan , in the green room at View from the Bay , he reminisced about the RIF bookmobile visits to his rural Tennessee town. At first, the air-conditioned bus attracted him, but later, the books became the draw. Bruce, our cab driver in Portland, revealed his childhood obsession with the Hardy Boys, where his love for mystery novels began. My editor, Elizabeth, adored The Secret Garden as a child. Visiting her DC apartment, she showed off her wall-to wall bookshelves—one end for her books, one end for her husband’s—pointing out the place where their books, and reading lives, came together (roughly in the middle, as all great marriages do).

Teachers and parents e-mail me every day, sharing their reading histories—memories of cherished books, summer library visits, or the special teachers, librarians, and relatives who helped them discover books—a passion that lasts even now, into their adult years. They know I care about how much books mean to them because, clearly, books mean a great deal to me, too.

My students have their own reading origin stories to tell. Some read avidly, while others view books as their nemesis. No matter their views toward reading now, all of them recall at least one time when reading held power—sharing Mouse on the Motorcycle with Dad, listening to their second grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web or finishing Good Night Moon by themselves for the first time.

We will share our reading roots the first week of school. I want my students to see that every reader begins in the same place—with one book or one memorable experience. Looking back to the beginning, we will make plans to move forward—together. A few will trace their reading origins back to my classroom, some day.

Mine started with a flashlight, and my reading story continues to be written—one book and one reader at a time.

If every reader has a story, tell yours. What is your origin story? How did your reading life begin? How does your reading past impact you now as a teacher or parent? What books stick with you now, years later? Who influenced your reading life?

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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