I was a slow reader. I couldn’t learn the ABC and my progress through the Peter and Jane readers was painful. I dreaded when my turn came to read in class; I stuttered and stumbled trying to make out those little black marks. My teacher thought I was lazy but even when I learnt the letters they stayed stubbornly separate; they would not form words inside my head. I remember the shame and panic, frowning and frowning at my allotted sentence as the whole class – fifty kids – waited. Once, I thought I recognised something.
‘Peter… saw, ’ I said triumphantly. I was sent straight to the corner to face the wall.
Not saw, bold girl! Was.
Towards the end of the school year I’d turned seven and was still making no progress. One day Miss Farrelly held up a book. It was thick, like a novel. It was dark blue. There was a wizard on the cover. A wizard!
‘This,’ Miss Farrelly said, ‘is a book for advanced readers. Those of you who find Peter and Jane too easy may buy it. If your parents wish you to have it they should send in three shillings and sixpence tomorrow.’
I wanted that book. I wanted it badly. I went home and told my mother there was a book to buy and I needed 3/6.
‘But you can’t read,’ Mam said.
‘Please, please,’ I said. ‘I’ll read it, I promise.’
‘If you don’t read it, it will be a waste of money,’ Mam said.
Now, my parents were book people. They saw books as necessities, like food and shoes. My sisters and I grew up surrounded by books. Here are some of the beautiful picturebooks we had as children:
But Mam hated waste. It took some persuading but the next day I marched up to Miss Farrelly, coins in hand.
‘This book is for advanced readers,’ she snapped. ‘You can’t even read.’
‘Mammy said I was to get it,’ I said.
Miss Farrelly rolled her eyes and tut-tutted but she handed over the book.
At home that afternoon I pulled the precious thing from my schoolbag and opened it. The letters sat there, black and unyielding. My joy turned to horror. Mammy would kill me! Mrs Farrelly would say she told me so. I looked at the first page. There was a lovely illustration of a dog and a fisherman. I was full of terror but also full of longing. I wanted in, wanted into the story.
Sandy… the… Sailor… Dog… said the title. A half hour later I realised I was three stories into the book. I was reading, reading fluently, gobbling words, turning pages. Something magical had happened; some switch inside my head had flipped. I was a reader.
This is a piece I wrote for #BOLD GIRLS. BOLD GIRLS is a Children’s Books Ireland initiative to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland. It’s a celebration of brave, adventurous, curious and feisty girls and women in children’s literature, past and present. You can find info on the FEATURED AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS, the BOLD GIRL READING GUIDE and the SCHOOL RESOURCE PACK HERE.
NOTE: Miss Farrelly was a stern teacher but who wouldn’t be, faced with 50 kids? She lived nearby and always had a hello and a smile for me as I passed from child to teen to adult. In ‘real life’ she had a twinkle in her eye and a hearty chuckle.