How Reading Taught Me to Write

I had a lot of trouble learning how to read when I was a kid. I don’t remember how old I was when I finally put the words together, I just remember being the very last kid who could make her way through the jungle of words in a book. None of it made sense to me. I couldn’t grasp how the letters and sounds were supposed to come together and actually mean something. I thought I was stupid and really believed there was something wrong with me. I believed I would never be smart like other people. I hated reading. I hated books. I hated words. I couldn’t spell. I couldn’t even pronounce words correctly. I avoided books and reading because they reminded me of how stupid I thought I was and brought to my attention everything I wasn’t good at.

I was a physical kid—always outside climbing trees and building forts with my brothers. I didn’t want to sit still and learn anything. I believed I couldn’t learn and that I wasn’t smart enough to understand like other people.

But then when I was 11 I picked up a book called The Penny Whistle by B. J. Hoff and something changed inside of me. I have no idea why I picked that book up or cracked it open because it wasn’t something I normally did. I remember loving the illustrations in the book—crisp, detailed pencil drawings that looked like you could touch the page and get graphite on your fingers; perhaps that’s what drew me in. Regardless, it was the words that kept me. Finally, for the first time in my life, words made sense; they ran off the page like water and I drank them up—consumed them one by one to the very last page.

I pulled The Penny Whistle off my bookshelf today—it’s tattered with a piece of tape on the cover. My name is written in black marker on the inside cover with the date July 18, 1997. I flipped through the pages and found the grubby fingerprints off an 11-year-old throughout. The book falls open to my favorite illustration of a tree standing stark against a winter backdrop.

When I held that book today I actually had to stop and take a deep breath to fight back tears. Why? Because that simple little book changed my life. I don’t even remember what the book is really about; the story is lost but the change it brought inside of me remains. When I poured over that book as an 11-year-old girl, I found something inside of myself. I found words. I found ability and intelligence. I found stories. I came alive and knew I had value, capability, and something to share. I went from hating books to loving them—loving the stories held inside two covers. I fell in love with words and began to see them as colors on a palette and the blank page as my canvas. There, reading that book, I fell in love with writing.

When I was a teenager, I remember being sick and bored one day so I cracked open Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The name Daddy-Long-Legs amused me and, for no other reason, I started reading. I read the whole book that day without ever putting it down. I’m not an avid reader even now so it means something when I can’t part with a story until it’s finished. I gobbled up each book by Webster and learned one important thing from her stories—the writer’s voice. I don’t know how to describe Jean Webster—her imagination, her childishness, her sharp sense of humor—she wrote like she was having a witty conversation with each of her readers. I fell in love with her style and find now that my own voice in writing grew out of the whimsy I so love in her books.

Even though I struggled through school and language has always been a challenge for me, I have found that reading is the best lesson I ever learned in writing. In reading, I actually see the way language is laid out on a page in sentences and paragraphs. Instead of just hearing about and practicing the proper construction of individual sentences and parts of speech, I can actually visualize and grasp sentence structure as I read. The more I read, the more I learn about writing. The more I write, the more I want to read and learn more and more from the words and characters acting out the world of grammar on the page. I may never be a very good student. I may never be able to fully understand the complexities of the English language. But I do know the more I read the words of good writers, the better writer I too can be.

“The problem was too big for the lot of them. But her mother always maintained that you had to start where you were or you’d never get anywhere at all” (p. 37, The Penny Whistle).

23 thoughts on “How Reading Taught Me to Write

  1. Love this post. I can really relate. Thought I would never learn to read. Had to stay after school with a tutor. However, when I did finally catch on, the joy of writing stepped in. My favorite book was The Boxcar Children.


  2. Reading, for me, is a journey–a journey in the story the author is describing. I love it when authors describe places, scenes, people in such a way that I can almost feel them. Smell them almost (not the people usually). [Cook books are the best for imaginary smelling]. Sorry… I digress. Good stories have a way of taking me to that place and I swear I experience what the characters experience.

    You, Kari, have a way of doing that for me. You took me back to your childhood–the struggles, the books–and let me walk the journey with you. But it isn’t just this particular post. All of your posts are that way. Please, for the sake of refreshing reading (not the “O, my life is so miserable! Please let me tell you all about it…” blogs), keep it up.


    • David, this is one of the nicest comments anyone has ever left for me. Thanks so much for your encouraging words! And congrats on the baby girl. She’s sooooo pretty…but I’m sure you already knew that :]


      • Just keep writing…and reading, for that matter. These are all enjoyable!

        Thank you so much! She is a dream come true and Lindsay and I couldn’t be any happier. We could, however, be more exhausted (it is possible) and that’s coming too soon 🙂


  3. I love to read now, but I remembering having a hard time learning how to read. It was a read-a-thon that got me going… I could see the progress I made. After that I loved to read since it was a simple goal that you could see progress and quickly reach.
    This post reminded me of something I’ve heard… (I am a teacher, so maybe in one of those literacy classes)… that kids that don’t like to read just haven’t found the right book yet! You are the perfect example. Something will just click when they finally find a book they enjoy. I tell the parents of struggling readers that all the time, and so far I have found it to be true.I read to my students whenever I can and try to foster the love for reading with funny voices and humorous stories 🙂
    Thanks for sharing.


    • I think what you said about kids not having found the right book is so true. Reading sounds hard and boring and it takes the right story to draw you in the first time. I love that you are a teacher and are teaching your students to love the written word—that is such a gift to them.


      • That is the one thing I hope to instill in them… All other stuff may be forgotten, but the love of reading is a life long gift. I do the voices and use a lot of humorous books. My class this year wanted to beat the goal of books I read to them. We read 82 over the year… Mostly picture books, but some chapter books. They were so excited. I read some from a series, so they would then go check them out at the library. It was great!


  4. You reminded me of my own youth and my ever growing love for reading and now writing. There are times when I read now that I actually sense an almost physical longing to be able to write in such a way that it would let others become part of the story. Someday perhaps that almost magical ability to paint a word picture that isn’t complete until you’re in it will be developed in me.

    Also notable that the date inscribed in your book happens to be my birthday, although I am a bit older than your 11 🙂


  5. What a beautiful post! You have captured so eloquently exactly what I hoped would happen for each one of my students… that they would discover a love for the written word. If I taught them nothing else, that would be enough.


  6. A passion for reading is behind my passion and skill level, whatever that might be, as a writer. Thanks for reminding me to thank a book. Great post.


  7. This is one of my favorite blogs that you’ve written. I have always loved words, the escape I feel when I read a good book (I BECOME my favorite character within the story), the joy of holding a book and turning pages…it’s almost inexpressible. And I so wanted to give that gift to each of my children, to teach them that with reading and comprehension of what you read you can go anywhere, learn anything…it’s like magic! I remember well your struggles with reading and spelling and I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that God has used those very struggles in your early life to touch the lives of so many others with your written words now. The books we have shared and read together are part of the bond we still have, when I read back through a book that we once laughed over, cried over…I’m there with you, my little girl, my grown daughter, one of my best friends..MAGIC!


    • I cherish the books we have shared, too. Sometimes I’ll pull a book off the shelf and find a letter in there from you written back when we were reading something together—love it when that happens :]


  8. Oh my. If I was close to you now I would indeed hug you. Hailstones and Halibut Bones was one of the books I dearly loved as a child. My adult daughter gave me a copy of it a few Christmas’ ago and I cried when I opened the gift. I love this post. I love your writing. It is a blessing and a joy to read. Well done you. DAF


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