Confessions of a One-Time Reluctant Reader by Randy Cecil
I was an absolute book fanatic from the start. Or, to be more precise, I was an absolute PICTURE book fanatic. When adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always the same: picture book illustrator.
Every week as a child, my mother took my brother and sister and me to our public library. Every week I brought home an enormous stack of books. In the evening, I would sit on the living room couch next to my mother as she read the words to books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Where the Wild Things Are to me. And I would interpret the pictures for her.
Most kids had athletes for heroes. My heroes were picture book authors and illustrators. At the age of four, I sent a letter, along with a drawing of a castle, to one of those heroes—Uri Shulevitz. He was the creator of my very favorite book, One Monday Morning.
To my astonishment, Uri Shulevitz wrote me back! And he complimented me on my drawing! If I wasn’t sure before that I could be a picture book illustrator, that I WOULD be a picture book illustrator, I was now.
Years passed, me checking out as many books as I could carry and drawing nonstop. And then one day, around the start of a new school year, everything changed. Suddenly I was too old for picture books. It was time for me to move on to middle grade books.
I could not process this idea. How could I be too old for picture books? I wanted to BE a picture book illustrator!
Besides, middle grade books were serious. Middle grade books were realistic. And worst of all, they had no pictures!
But at least I had Robert Newton Peck’s “Soup” books. These middle grade books were about a boy and his buddy named Soup, who ran around together having adventures and getting into all kinds of trouble. In short, these books were about me. I almost wondered if Robert Newton Peck wasn’t somewhere nearby, watching my life unfold and scribbling down brilliant, new material in his notebook.
But there were only so many Soup books (there now appear to be at least fourteen books in the Soup series, but at the time there were only two), and the pressure to read more middle grade books continued.
With no more Soup books to turn to, and my teacher having recently begun assigning one page book reports, I responded by reading only biographies. It is amazing how, with some adjustments to handwriting and proper attention to the margins, one can make “”Abraham Lincoln” is a really good book about Abraham Lincoln,” take up almost a quarter of a page. Follow that up with when and where Abraham Lincoln was born, and you’re half way home.
But eventually my teacher pressed me to broaden my horizons. I had no such interest, so when asked to choose from a cart of books that had been wheeled into our classroom, I picked a book called A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith. Judging by the cover illustration, it was practically the long awaited third installment in the Soup series– two buddies, running around (this time among blackberry bushes), having adventures and getting into trouble.
One should never judge a book by its cover. (Spoiler alert) Unlike the Soup books, the Soup-like buddy in A Taste of Blackberries dies. I was shocked. I was confused. It had never occurred to me that such a thing could happen in a book. Was that even allowed? I had so much to think about. Despite my best efforts, my horizons had indeed been broadened. It was an intriguing feeling.
Unfortunately, in my next year at school, we abandoned books entirely in favor of a small box of cards. Each card had a few paragraphs of text printed on them. I was expected to read the cards and then answer questions on the back of the cards to determine how much of the text I had comprehended.
My shaky trust in reading was finally broken. It was official: I was a reluctant reader. And I remained so for the rest of my school years.
Not that I didn’t occasionally come upon a book (always assigned reading, of course) that moved me, or reflected my reality, or opened up new realities to me in exciting ways. But, I always assumed that these were strange exceptions.
It was only once school was behind me, that a funny thing happened– I grew curious about the books some of my friends were reading for pleasure. I borrowed one, and then another. Within a few years I had almost the same excitement for adult literary fiction that I once had for picture books as a child.
Soon after, I discovered young adult fiction. And finally, some thirty years after I was introduced to it, I really began to explore middle grade fiction. Even (and maybe especially) the serious, realistic middle grade fiction I had tried so hard to avoid when I was young.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to give these books a chance. The Soup books and A Taste of Blackberries are great books. But they aren’t the only great books. There are lots of them. More than you will ever have time to read.
They will open your mind. They will remind you that you are not alone. They will even help you to become a better writer. (Maybe I will actually listen to that last one.)
But I would also tell my younger self that I was right about one thing: You are never too old to love a good picture book.
Randy Cecil is the illustrator of twenty-five books for children, five of which he wrote, including Lucy, a book based on his real-life dog with the same name. Shortly after adopting her, Cecil felt inspired by her funny, mischievous energy; he began sketching out a wordless picture book about a little dog, but this wasn’t like most picture books—it was eighty pages long. Eventually he added words and Lucy grew into a 144 page picture book! Cecil’s creation of Lucy clearly comes from a place of love, but also a place of understanding the needs of a reluctant reader. Cecil’s new picture book has illustrations and sparse text perfect for readers transitioning out of traditional picture books, but not yet ready for middle grade novels. Cecil lives in Houston with Lucy.