Forever free

Jeff soaks up the sun while Matt soaks up a story. Our backyard at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, sometime in 1991.

Jeff soaks up the sun while Matt devours a story.
Our backyard at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, sometime in 1991.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” β€” Frederick Douglass

Matt taught himself to read before he started kindergarten, and throughout his elementary school years, his reading tested at several years above grade level.  Given the severity of some of his other learning challenges, including extremely deficient motor planning and poor neurological processing of most sensory input, his reading ability surprised and delighted his teachers, many of whom remarked on how he read aloud with dramatic expression that implied a level of comprehension not often present at his age.

I think one reason he was able to become a proficient reader was his absolute obsession with books during his preschool years.  Those who knew him then probably remember he was never without at least one book, often several.  The photo above was fairly typical of how he would position himself at the beach or in bed, with or without a pillow.  It would always make my neck  hurt to see him lying with raised head and shoulders, determined not to lose even a minute of reading time.

During those preschool and kindergarten years, I would go to the library and check out 30-40 picture books (there was no limit) and keep them in a box in the trunk of my car.  They provided endless free incentives for good behavior. When he would go to occupational therapy or other settings that required his cooperation and effort, all I had to do was remind him that good behavior meant he could choose another book from the treasure chest in the trunk.  It worked like a charm at least 95% of the time, and I could run by the library to change out my stockpile of books as often as he went through them.

As Matt has grown older, reading, like music, has been a special gift in his life.  He has endured more than his fair share of suffering and loneliness, but he also has been blessed with a zest for life that has been fed by his imagination and his ability to immerse himself in the operas, musicals and stories he loves.

Frederick Douglass, who knew firsthand about enduring cruel limitations and suffering of a far different kind, understood the crucial importance of allowing the mind to break free through the doorway of reading.  I hope his words will remind us that the ability to read is a precious gift, one that can give us wings to rise above whatever chains may bind us.

One year ago today:

Read them fairy tales




  1. Larry

    An insatiable appetite for the look inside a good book for adventure and knowledge is indeed a blessing. I can remember at an early age his desire to sit in the floor and look at a book instead of doing almost anything else. His ability to retain also what he has read is a special gift also. Grandmother says to read a book for her today and she loves him very much!

    • Larry, Matt’s obsession with books when he was younger was downright comical, as we can all remember. One of the first rules about manners I can remember having to teach him is NOT to grab a book out of some mother’s hands when he spotted her carrying one or more for her children! He pretty much figured any picture book was fair game. Tell Grandmother Matt and Jeff will be reading together again tonight, as they do pretty much every night for about an hour. Right now they are reading Hotel for Dogs. I don’t know who enjoys their reading most, Matt, Jeff, or me (as a bystander). πŸ˜€

  2. singleseatfighterpilot

    “Don’t be sad, read books.” That was the advice Matt gave my twelve-year-old daughter, one time when pubescent cares were starting to get the best of her.
    if i were to post, on consecutive days, photos from a certain locale — they would have to depict Carlyle and Albert at the Nocking Point (early eighties). Though the two men and I can still reminisce, i know we can never return to those halcyon days. I ask other readers: was there a time in your life, associated with a particular place? a place like Vandenberg Air Force Base or the Nocking Point — If there is, do you entertain daydreams of recapturing this?

    • Eric, that quote of Matt’s would make a good blog quote! I imagine most who read this will be able to think of magical times that are gone, never to return, but which yet live on in our memories — and if Daddy is right, that “past, present and future co-exist,” then maybe they’re not totally gone after all. I have many such elusive daydream-like memories (not to be confused with nostalgia, a different sort of recall) but for me, the Vandenberg days surpass them all. Other memories of mine with a similar ethereal quality that you might remember, would be Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings in childhood, and the days of going to South Fulton Skyport to go flying in the Aeronca.

  3. Interesting. In fact, developing reading is a good habit and relieves strain to the brain.

    • Hi Lvsrao, it is nice to hear from you again! I agree that reading is a rest for the brain, though some people seem to think it laborious. There are times when reading is the only way I can relax my brain enough to sleep! No wonder I love books so much.

  4. raynard

    Julia my first book I ever owned came from a bookmobile. Somehow we have been”groomed away from physical books My two youngest daughters ( now both in college) were always good readers. I heard this saying”Leaders are Readers”. You figure with all the video games , movies “streaming stuff surprising I dont really do what I just mentioned. I’ve always been a hearer and love “theatre for the mind” as they call it Oldtime radio and audiobooks.. Wherever you go and whatever you do this Mother’s day weekend , enjoy and be blessed

    • Raynard, I am a firm believer that there are different learning styles, and I fall into the “auditory learner” category which it sounds like you do too – I like radio, audiobooks, music, etc. and in fact, most of what I “read” is in unabridged audio format. People who like to chat (even online) are usually auditory types. Some people are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners (people who learn by physically doing something) and so on. I guess most of us can learn in many different ways, but usually there is a preferred learning style. For those of us who are auditory, technology has been a huge gift. Hope you have a great weekend!

  5. This is such an awesome story! I can remember doing the same thing for both of my kids, and they could both read by the time they were in Kindergarten. My son was reading on his own by age four, and and our daughter by age five. That was just what we did for relaxing time before and after naps, etc. I am so happy for your son and his love for reading! πŸ™‚ Have a wonderful Mother’s Day!!

    • Thank you, I’m happy for you too! I really believe there is no greater gift we can give our kids. It will open doors for them for their entire lives. I hope you have a Happy Mother’s Day too!

  6. Great picture of Matt reading. πŸ™‚
    I’ve loved books long before I could read and really don’t remember when I learned to read. Reading Books is my favorite past time.
    My earliest memory of books is looking through my teenage uncles text books…

    • WOW, that’s amazing that you were interested in textbooks at all at that age – no wonder you are a reader! I think life will never be boring to a person who loves to read. It connects us to other people and other worlds in a way that nothing else can. Thanks for reading (and writing) here too!

      • I’m seldom bored, especially when reading. I’ll read the jelly jar, cereal box and when traveling… church signs. πŸ™‚

        • Merry, I’m the same way, a totally compulsive reader. It took me a long time to learn to throw away junk mail without at least reading a few words of it to see what it’s about. Advertisers know this, obviously! When I’m traveling I love to read local bulletin boards in libraries and grocery stores. I guess I’m just nosy, when you get right down to it! Or maybe curious would be a better word.

  7. Sheila

    Julia, I immediately remembered that Jeff and Matt read together every night. That’s one of the most special insights of your home life that I just love. Hi to both Jeff and Matt. πŸ™‚ We are at Willow Tree …… in our tiny tin condo! This is a special Mother’s Day weekend for you, Meme! Love, Mimi

    • I love the idea of a tin condo, especially when it rains! Yes, I had not thought about it until you mentioned it here, but this is my first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. I will be so happy just to be home with Jeff and Matt. πŸ˜€

  8. Lovely, Julia. Reading is a gift that keeps on giving. I can’t imagine life without it. I’m so happy Matt has that in his life. I was a total bookworm growing up, checking out a pile of books with each library visit, than plowing through them all.

    By the way, I just finished reading Orphan Train. It’s a beautiful book if you get the chance to pick it up.

    • I think readers grow up to be such interesting people! I go haywire in the library to this day, checking out more books than I ever have time to get to before they are due. Oh for the days when I had time to “plow through them all” which I always did too! Thanks for the tip about Orphan Train – I just put a hold on it at the library πŸ˜€ – it has quite a few people ahead of me waiting for it so it must be really good.

      • I agree.

        I’ve just mailed you my copy of Orphan Train. Let me know what you think.

        • WOW, how sweet of you! I will move that up my list of “must read” – it does sound like a book I would love.

  9. Amy

    Whenever I think of Matt I think of him reading to Katie. She would be in her carseat or in a chair or on the floor and Matt would have a stack of books. Like Matt, Kat loved books but never so well as when someone else did the reading. πŸ™‚ It always impressed me how Matt would say the title and the author. I figured one day he would say something like, “The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Suess. Published by ________ in ____. Copyright _____. I don’t think he ever did that but I may have missed it. I will always be grateful to him for sharing his love of reading and appreciation of all the arts. What a wonderful child he was and what a wonderful young man he has grown into. How blessed we are to know him. Thanks for sharing this. Love the photo.

    • Amy, sometimes he would actually read all those little details, although I don’t think he ever cared about copyright dates. I wish I had made tape recordings of him reading aloud. Somewhere I have a tape that a teacher made of him reading Strega Nona (by Tomie DePaola) aloud and it’s precious. All his little inflections and character voices. Katie was so sharp that she was a great listener even though a lot of people would have thought her too young to be read to. She never missed a thing. Such happy memories we have of those golden Central Coast days!

      • Amy

        Absolutely!! God knew what he was doing when he sent us there. πŸ™‚

  10. Michael

    There is a really interesting statue of Douglas in East Harlem on of all things=”Frederick Douglas Boulevard.” I really have not read much of his material- or if I had I have forgotten some or all of it. I am currently reading ” Killing Lincoln,” by O’Reilly and it is a very good read.
    I heard an interesting exchange about a boy who visiting his grandparents asked, when seeing all their books in their library, asked,” Why do you have all these books on the shelves if you have already read them.” The grandson does most of his reading on his Kindle.
    This could be the last generation of hard bound, real time, solid space books. Which reminds me- what do you think of the new all digital libraries? Then again-perhaps our lives will be less cluttered when we go all digital- why not?

    • I don’t think physical books will ever go away, though some times (such as genre fiction paperbacks and reference books with hypertext links to related sources) are definitely better suited to digital format. Digital books lend themselves to easy editing and therefore the possibility of electronic censorship at some point, as well as other forms of revision and tampering years later. Digital libraries have existed in some form for a very long time, in the sense that huge databases have been available for decades now. Most of my research in library school was done from such databases, books and periodicals being quite dated, relatively speaking, by the time they come out. But just as movies did not do away with Broadway and live theater, and recorded music did not end live concerts (many famous artists make much more from concerts than from recordings) I don’t think the physical book will disappear, as it does have some features and advantages, many of them aesthetic, that digital books don’t have.

  11. A really sweet post. “It would always make my neck hurt” – haha.. Loved that picture – what a tough posture! πŸ™‚
    My little one (5 yr old) is so fond of reading and she wants to read at least one book soon after she returns from the school. I will be so tired but she will persist and make me assist her with all the new words. But her skill really makes me happy.
    Glad that Matt finds joy in books – that is a blessing. God bless him!

    • Bindu, it is hard for busy parents to make time for the reading with kids, but it’s time well spent, which you obviously know. I have such fond memories of reading picture books to Drew and Matt at night when I returned home from working all day at the airport ticket counter for USAir. I looked forward to those times together even after I had quit work and stayed home full time. I read to them nightly until they were in middle school. Thanks so much for your kind words and thoughts for Matt!

  12. MaryAnn

    Julia, At our home with the teen group, we were all so amazed at Matt’s recall of details & facts! He made that time extra special with his vast knowledge. The team who had Matt as a player always won at “Outburst”. I love reading, also. It is my favorite to teach children at Boys & Girls Club and at the local elementary school. Their eyes sparkle when they realize they are reading!
    So happy to know you 3 are at home reading “together”.

    • Mary Ann, I’m glad you remember Matt’s “trivia whiz” days. He still knows a lot and likes to watch Jeopardy, but at his age he gets annoyed when I try to get him to show off his skills and has learned to just say “I don’t know” at times when I think he really does. Reading with kids is such fun because they really do get into it if the story is good. Of course, reading is fun for adults too! And I’m happy that book discussion groups have been so popular in recent years.

  13. That’s a really sweet photo of young Matt. I can’t imagine holding my neck up like that for too long. It’d be could tummy exercise. I liked that you carried the good behaviour incentives in the trunk of your car πŸ˜€ That’s fun. Pretty amazing that Matt taught himself to read so young, how do you think he managed it? I’m sure your own love of books has influenced your children. My dad read to us before bed and I have the best memories of that. I remember my grandpa looking at the newspaper too, but now I know he signed with an X and couldn’t read. It makes me a little sad to know what he missed in life because of it. Winter’s must have seemed very long on the farm with out the companionship of a good book (or electricity for TV).

    • I think illiteracy was much more common a couple of generations ago than we realize, and maybe even more common today than most of us supposed. There was no understanding of learning disabilities and other obstacles to learning until relatively recently. Matt learned to read because he got obsessed (and I do mean obsessed) with books on tape. We owned many and the local library had a lot too. He would love to listen and turn the page when the beep sounded. By the time he was four years old, he had memorized many words by sight in this way. In California we enrolled him in a Montessori preschool where they taught him the phonetic alphabet, and ZOOM – he jumped way ahead and started reading pretty much everything. In Montessori they believed in letting the child self-direct their own activities, but Matt was so obsessive about reading ALL the time that they began to try to gently direct him to other things…not that it worked. πŸ™‚ His love of stories was the motivating factor that drove him, and his photographic memory (for learning words by sight and learning letter sounds) did the rest.

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