To the 12-year-old me, reading was drudgery. It was difficult, boring and stupid, more like work than entertainment. That attitude dug an intellectual hole that took me years to escape.
Did I have a learning disability? Who knows? It was the ’70’s and the concept was fairly new. In the motivate-or-dismiss paradigm of the day, I couldn’t get it so I was disciplined for being “lazy” and marginalized as “slow.” I took it all personally, withdrew, and found refuge in the stories on TV and in movies.
Life at home was no help. Learning and success weren’t nurtured. I piled on a boatload of frustration and shame. As my classmates got good grades and praise, and then pulled the next larger book off the shelf to read, I experienced embarrassment and pain. I could never catch up or be smart like them, so why bother? By ninth grade I was in a dropout spiral, enduring the monotony of school and waiting for the day when I could legally leave that prison, then get out of my parents’ house.
Everything changed that year, though, because I was lucky enough to fail ninth-grade English. Getting an F on my report card brought an automatic summer school sentence. I was thrown in with the big kids and became the smallest flunky (picture a young Anthony Michael Hall) in a senior-high-school-level English course. I had a bad attitude; I expected everyone to match it or yield to it.
But the summer session teacher wasn’t some pushover just putting in his time behind the desk. He was in command and passionate about teaching even us left-backs. And best of all, instead of sentence structure and reading comprehension—all that boring English class tedium—he was passionately teaching Humanities. A whole world opened in front of me—literature, art, music, theater, philosophy, history.
Humanities matched my short attention span and subject-jumping brain. I got it. I started learning things that would serve me well: There’s a bigger world out there; history and culture have a lot to teach us; it’s all available in books; that is why reading is important.
And my teacher did something else in his classes that I now know are the number one and number two most effective ways to help a reluctant reader like me. First, he was a reading role model, a man who read and talked about books. Second, we read aloud in class, him reading to us, us reading to each other.
Through his attention and encouragement, my teacher showed me that I was more than I was pretending to be and that I could achieve something. I could read. Reading gave me dignity, and I began taking responsibility for my education. I became the first person in my family to graduate from high school and went on to study art in college. I had no intention of becoming a writer.
Years later, out of creative frustration, I sat down and hammered out my first book. Why not? If someone wrote the books I was reading, maybe I could do it too. I really loved writing. As I’d been doing throughout my years of TV and movie viewing, I could walk right into that world of story.
I got a contract to write a series of books for young, reluctant and struggling readers. Basically I was getting paid to write books for my 12-year-old self. When I won the Moonbeam Award for one of those books, I thought, “Are they sure? Do they know that at one time I wouldn’t even pick up a book?”
I still have some difficulty with reading—I’m very picky and very slow—and have spent a lot of my adult life ashamed and silent about it. Now that I talk openly about reading problems, I find legions of adults and kids dealing with the same frustration and shame.
When I speak at schools and libraries, I bring the passion for reading and learning that my teacher gave me. Who I am and what I do is largely because of my ability to read. I want every child to know that books aren’t just shelf decoration, that inside any one of those volumes may be a whole world that can change life for the better. Reading is worth the effort—a thousand times over. Every kid—even the most reluctant of readers like me—responds to that message of hope and encouragement.
Who knows? One of those readers who struggles now may accidentally become a writer like me.
Chris Everheart is a recovering reluctant reader turned award-winning author of books for young readers. His latest series, The Delphi Trilogy, has been described by teen services librarians as “unputdownable” young adult conspiracy thrillers that even the most reluctant of readers will dive into. The Delphi Deception: Book II of The Delphi Trilogy is available now.