Outside of my family, the longest and most important relationship in my life has been my relationship with books. Seriously, this should come as no surprise to anyone. I studied books in college and grad school. And now I spend most of my time writing about them on the internet, teaching children and teenagers about how to read and write them, and working towards creating my own someday. Books and reading are a key part of my identity. They encapsulate how I spend my time, where I feel the most passion, and my most important dreams for the future. Reading has been both by best friend and my biggest teacher.
But enough of this lovefest. Reading and I weren’t always this close. Not even a little bit. In fact, reading used to be my very least favorite thing in the world to do. Actually, it was something adults asked me to do all day, that I just couldn’t figure out. Many of my bookish friends say they can’t remember a time before they learned to read. Not me. I can vividly remember years of not knowing how to read. In fact, I didn’t learn to read until I was 10 years old.
When you’re a kid who isn’t grasping the skill of reading in 1st or 2nd (or in my case 3d and 4th) grade, you’re automatically labeled as a problem. I went to learning specialists for evaluations. I received extra support from a tutor. And, most importantly, from reading aloud to me every night, helping me with reading homework, and making me trace letters in trays of salt whiles sounding out words, my mom never gave up on helping me learn to read and turning me into a book lover.
I obviously had a lot of privilege and support in tackling this problem. But I still remember the dread of teachers asking me to read out loud and the frustration of reading homework taking hours longer than it should have. It’s really painful to put myself back in little Alison’s shoes during this time. I now know that millions of children have difficulty learning to read, but at the time I thought I just wasn’t smart enough to figure out what seemed easy to my classmates.
Of course, many factors came together to help me learn to read and eventually become an advanced reader for my age. All the support I mentioned (thanks again, Mom!) and switching to a new school that used different methods to teach reading were probably the main things that helped me. But there is one book that I also think deserves a lot of credit: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
It started when someone gave the book to my little sister as a gift. Then, my mom started to read it to us before bed. The book is a retelling of the well-known Cinderella fairytale, but with some magical twists. Ella doesn’t do all that housework for her stepfamily because of her selfless heart. Instead, she’s under an obedience curse that the fairy Lucinda gave her at birth. This means she literally has to follow every command. Listening to my mother read, I was entranced by this conundrum, the humor of Ella’s voice, and the intricate world building in the book. My sister, however, was not.
The next night, Mom put Ella Enchanted away and picked another book to read to us. But I couldn’t get Ella of Frell out of my head. Eventually, I asked my mom if I could read Ella Enchanted by myself. At the time, I didn’t understand how momentous this was. But I think my mom did. It was the first time I actually wanted to read. Caught up in the story, I skipped over the words I didn’t know and only asked for help if a word or phrase seemed crucial to the story.
The writing was magic. But I think the book being a retelling also helped me stay engaged. I knew how the book would end — the wicked characters would be punished and Ella would marry Prince Char (name variations on Cinderella and Prince Charming that I found very clever at the time). But I didn’t know how it would happen. How would Ella break her curse? How would Ella and Char get over the differences in their social class? That’s what kept me reading, even though the skill didn’t come naturally to me yet.
I’ve never been more proud of myself than when I finished that book. After announcing my accomplishment to my mom, I immediately started to read it again, understanding more and having an easier time reading the second time around. I eventually moved on to other books. But Ella Enchanted remained not only a favorite, but the first book I loved and the one that taught me to read.