I can remember the exact moment I fell in love with reading. I was 5 years old, the oldest daughter of Mexican immigrants and at the time could not speak, write, nor read English.
I found myself in the grocery store with my parents standing at the checkout line when I spotted a basket of books for sale. Intrigued, I made my way over with the feeling that I stumbled upon a hidden treasure. I inspected them as though I was seeking out the most exquisite gem in the treasure chest.
One after the other, I skimmed their pages and then gently put them back. As I searched, I came across The One. I was in love. She was about half an inch thick and was dotted with beautiful illustrations. I gently turned her pages having no idea what her words meant. My imagination ran wild conjuring up a story in my mind’s eye based on her drawings.
I hurried over to my parents and made my plea for this treasure, I absolutely had to have it! I loved it so and it was essential she go home with me. My father pointed out the obvious.
“No lo puedes leer.”
Yes, I could not yet read and to make matters worse the book was in English, a language which I didn’t even understand. I countered his argument as most kids do. I lied.
I confidently explained that I could in fact read and as I looked him straight in the eye, I assured him I would do so on the daily. My heart ached at the thought of him denying my purchase. We both knew I was lying but I was determined he understand how important this was to me.
My eyes pleaded with him as he looked down at me, pensive and quiet. My little body ached at the excitement it felt at the prospect of calling such a book my own.
“No llores porque se va a enojar y decir que no” I reminded myself. I felt as if time was standing still.
With those two simple words he swung open the door to my love of reading. I couldn’t even read the title of the book and I already cherished it more than anything else I possessed. I pretended to read my book every day and looked forward to starting school so that I may learn to read and know what this story I loved so much was about.
On my first day of kindergarten, I was up and ready early. I couldn’t wait to get there. My mom braided my hair, dressed me in a dress she had made for me herself and made sure I had the dark blue canvas book bag she’d bought me. I was ready!
We arrived at school but were not sure where to go as my mom said my name wasn’t on the list outside the classroom door. She was told I was a “late bird” so I would be part of the afternoon session.
She bent down to me and explained that we had to go back home but would return later in the day. Warm tears were instantly released from my eyes and glided down my face. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay. She assured me we would be coming back and we headed home as I continued to cry. We returned later that day and I started kindergarten.
I was in a bilingual classroom, Spanish was familiar, English was not. The class included our teacher and her aide. Loving women who taught me English and nurtured my love of reading. They were patient and encouraging. Ms. Munch from John Adams Elementary in Santa Ana, CA is a woman I will never forget.
I became an avid reader. The library was my favorite place at school. Reading Rainbow was my favorite show! I would watch the show and jot down the names of books I wanted to read, then head to my school library in search of them.
Going garage sale shopping with my parents in the nicer neighborhoods was a treat. They found things for the house but when I came upon a box of used books it was the feeling of stumbling upon a buried treasure all over again. Most of the time books were a quarter or two, which meant I would easily take home a couple of them. It was an amazing feeling to be able to buy books of my own, no need to return them anywhere after a couple of weeks because they were my personal property. I was their proud owner.
If I was awake, I was reading. Even as a teenager I remember my dad complaining about me reading at the dinner table. Irritated I would oblige, put my book down, eat my meal and return to the pages of my story right after.
My parents worked hard to provide for us. They did well. We had clothes, a good roof over our heads and delicious homemade meals on our table but we did not have much for things such as vacations or whatnot. That being the case, I never felt like I missed out.
My books opened the windows to new worlds and experiences beyond my reach. It is common knowledge that books are doors into different lives. We learn, we grow, we love y hasta sufrimos mientras vivimos las vidas de los personajes que llegamos a querer. We live additional lives in the words and pages before us and in my reading I did just that. As I read, I knew that one day I would actually live some of the experiences these imaginary characters I loved so much were living and I would walk across the lands of these far-off places.
When I became a parent, I tried to instill the love of reading in my children. Books were a reward for good grades. They were a gift frequently given for any and all happy occasions. Regular trips to used bookstores were a common family activity on any given weekend. Each one of the kids had their own library card and plenty of time was given to search for just the right books. Finding a comfy spot at home and spending hours reading was a day well spent. I pray my now adult children will continue to cultivate the love of reading and will one day pass this love down to their own children.
Sadly, society has changed. Children and teenagers today are reading less and less. Even toddlers today no longer seem to fumble with big children’s books made specifically for them. Rather, so many glide their chubby fingers across the screens of large cell phones or tablets entranced by the bright screen before them.
Social media is king in our world today and our kids, this new generation is living the consequences of it in every way. Mentally, emotionally and physically they are suffering.
It was hard enough being a teenager in my day, we struggled with depression and anxiety as most kids do but today the number of young ones facing these struggles has skyrocketed. Hours upon hours are spent staring at screens, taking in false and dangerous ideas of unrealistic expectations of what it means to be beautiful, happy or free. It’s all a lie and our kids are feeding on it regularly.
Reading for the sake of enjoyment seems to be a dying art, a victim fallen to smartphones and social media. Yet, you never know what might happen. “Vintage” things and activities seem to make a comeback here and there. Maybe one day a new trend will get started and picking up a fat paperback or hardbound novel will be the “new thing” and kids everywhere will be found in bookstores, parks and coffee shops with their noses deep within the pages of an enthralling new read, living the life of a character they’ve only just met.
Until then, here’s a nod to all the ones, young and old that never gave up the love of reading, the ones that still look forward to that enchanting scent released by the paper pages of a good book or for others nowadays, the feeling of joy that comes from seeing the gentle glow of their Kindle Paperwhite come alive.
– May 12, 2022 Parc Monceau, Paris