The treasure of a pirate tale

Across a sea of letters sailed a pirate ship, launching a first-grader into literacy.

One look at the pirate on the cover – crimson bandanna, cutlass, big wide belt – and I felt the old feeling. I always judge a book by its cover.

And this was my very first book – rediscovered on the top shelf of Brickbat Books on 4th Street in Philadelphia. "Look Out for Pirates!" and I had been separated for lo, these 40-something years ... but we were finally being reunited. It was an amazing feeling – my "Rosebud" experience.

I could remember one of our last encounters with crystal clarity. After my very first day in first grade at Lincolnwood Elementary School in Evanston, Ill., I had came home, bursting through the front door and going straight to the living room bookshelf. "Mom! I can read now," I exclaimed.

I pulled out "Look Out for Pirates!," crouched on the floor, and slowly turned the pages looking at all the familiar illustrations and especially the opening line: "It was a dark night." Captain Jim was saving the town's gold from the pirates, sailing it to safety under cover of darkness. But a pirate was watching, then signaling his no-good pirate gang, and following in hot pursuit. Yup, I was ready to do this by myself. I, too, was in hot pursuit – of reading.

The words were no more comprehensible to me that afternoon than they had been that morning, when I had "read" my favorite book before going to school.

But as of the end of the first day of first grade, I was confident that the time to read had come. So read I would. What I was actually doing had a type of authentic literacy to it, if not actual verbal understanding. Turning the pages in our childhood books, imitating the flow of the gaze from top to bottom of the page, looking at thousands of letters and words before knowing their meaning – but knowing they have meaning – this is the path toward literacy and fluency.

In later grades, I would be transformed by the pathos and drama of plot, the nuances of word choice, and the ordered experience of the sentence and paragraph. In first grade, however, it was enough to simply feel the power of having the appearance of reading. Later, I would understand the work of my parents, both writers, and choose English as my undergraduate major in college and then a career teaching literature. For now, I could take simple pleasure in imitation of what I saw the grown-ups doing. I had joined the readers club.

On returning home from the bookstore, I reread my recovered reading treasure with indescribable joy. I was transported, shipwrecked again on the tropical island with Captain Jim and his crew, repairing the schooner's stoved-in starboard bow, diving to retrieve the chest of gold lost overboard, bombarding the pirate deckhands with hornets' nests, and even towing their boat away from them. "Find work and fun there on the land," says benevolent Captain Jim. "Your pirate days are over." What epic prose!

Some days I sided with the pirates. For even the nefarious pirates had a happy ending – that island would be a great place to be marooned.

"Mom! Dad! I can read now!" Our recollections of the beginning of literacy and our first books are powerful, resonant, and as deeply embedded in memory as a whiff of fresh-baked cookies at Grandma's house. The power of reading aloud; the power of being read to; the power of suggesting that words matter; the power of the ordered, linear experience of visual and verbal narrative is intellectual and emotional discovery itself. And with that recollection, we very often recall the voice of a teacher or parent, and a favorite opening line: "Once upon a time...." "The night Max wore his wolf suit…." And, for me, "It was a dark night." All true stories.

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