The Case for the Undiscovered Reading Self by Tracy Edward Wymer
Growing up, I was not a reader. The only thing that even slightly captured my attention was a ball. Any kind of ball. Basketball. Baseball. Football. Soccer ball. Heck, even playing kickball at recess was more fun than reading a book. I especially liked tennis balls. Give me a tennis ball and a cinder block wall, and I was good to go for about three hours. I could play one-person baseball all day. You’re probably thinking, how do you play one-person baseball? My games involved highly exaggerated player introductions, fake crowd noises, phenomenal plays, and a lot of strikeouts—all accomplished by the person holding the tennis ball. Me.
Books? Who needed ‘em?
I sure didn’t. All I needed was a glove and ball, because I had my life mapped out, down to the city I would eventually call home. I knew everything about how my adult life would unfold. I was on my way to pitching for the Cincinnati Reds. I was nine years old.
When you’re nine years old, you know a lot. You know the best players in the big leagues. You know what’s for lunch on Tuesday. You know how many wisecracks it takes to get kicked out of social studies class. You know which friends have the best baseball cards, which friends could care less about baseball cards, which friends are eating a decent dinner at home, which friends you can trust with who you think is cute (okay, maybe that’s more like twelve not nine). But what you don’t know is where you’ll be in ten years, much less twenty or thirty. You can lay all the ground work you want. You can collect as many baseball cards as your parents will let you buy. You can daydream about pitching in the World Series all through social studies class (so you don’t get kicked out). You can play a thousand one-person baseball games. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Life will go where life will take you. Not that we don’t have control over our futures, but when you’re nine years old you think those daydreams are fail proof. You think that if you do all those things, you’ll end up pitching for your favorite team.
Books? Who needed ‘em?
I sure didn’t. I was funny. If playing in the big leagues didn’t work out (for some strange, end-of-the-world reason), I could make people laugh. Making friends spit-up their soda while sitting in the bleachers at high school basketball games had to be a full-time job somewhere in Indiana. Now I was eleven years old, and I had life by the throat. I’d play baseball until I broke Nolan Ryan’s strikeout record, then I’d spin my athletic fame into part-time Friday night bleacher entertainer. A full proof life plan if one ever existed.
It was about that time when I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I wasn’t a reader. I had finished a book in two days, but I wasn’t a reader. I didn’t tell anyone about it, especially my “sporty” friends. Because I wasn’t a reader.
To this day, I’m not sure where the book came from. I remember it showing up one day in my bedroom. Maybe it was my older brother’s book. It didn’t matter. My reading self was famished, and I had no idea. I had consumed Charlie and his Wonka Bars like a tasty meal. Until that day, I wasn’t even aware that a reading self lived inside me. There was something alive about that experience— reading a whole book—something that made me come back for more. Reading gave me the same high as sneaking grapes one at a time in the grocery store. I wanted to do it again.
So I read. I consumed everything I could find. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, The Karate Kid (parts 1, 2, and 3), Ramona Quimby, Dear Mr. Henshaw, The Hardy Boys (most of them), and The Little House on the Prairie (the entire series). My reading self was my own little secret. I kept my reading self to myself.
A few years later, I found a book in the library that would become my favorite: Highpockets by John R. Tunis. It was then that I realized that characters and sports could be meshed together to make interesting books. Of course, I told everyone about Highpockets. I had no shame in reading a book about a famous baseball player. I was now a reader and proud of it.
But my reading self knew something all along. I had always been a reader. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory happened to be the book that unleashed my reading self and urged me to run wild. And run wild is what I did. I ran through realistic, historical, mysteries, fantasy, and sports. In high school, I ran into Shakespeare. I began writing poems. Awful poems about famous athletes. I had a teacher—Mr. Dicken—who let me read my poems to the class. He’s also the one who made Shakespeare interesting. Imagine that.
Looking back now, as an adult, as someone who never pitched for the Cincinnati Reds, as someone who has never made money making people laugh, I wish two things. First, I wish I would’ve been more proud of reading all of those books. My friends could’ve used some Little House on the Prairie and Ramona Quimby in their lives. Second, I wish I would’ve found reading sooner. I guess I was too busy being nine years-old and planning my rise to athletic fame and comedy stardom.
Books? Who needed ‘em?
Tracy Edward Wymer grew up in Missouri and Indiana. He spent most of his childhood riding his bike, playing neighborhood Wiffle ball games, and reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over and over again. His new middle grade novel SOAR just hit shelves this month. He is also the author of The Color of Bones, and he is part of the anthology Been There, Done That: Writing Stories from Real Life. When not plowing through stacks of books on his nightstand, he likes to run, write, look for birds, and root for the Kansas City Royals. A long-time educator, Tracy lives with his family in Los Angeles.