Some of you learned to read by looking at photo captions in National Geographic, the printing on your mother’s cigarette pack, the label on your grandmother’s bottle of gin. Words are everywhere, and you sounded them out avidly. Some of you were taught by older siblings, accused of “memorizing,” rather than reading, scolded by nuns for not keeping in step with the class.

The scores of stories you shared after reading my column on learning to read (Aug. 28) are entertaining, interesting, funny and poignant. They reflect the thrill a child feels when those black squiggles on the page suddenly make sense. Even when you don’t remember the precise moment, you remember the excitement.

Below are stories from some of you. More of your stories will run individually every week or two into the future. Keep ’em coming. And always, always, keep reading.



Norita Dittberner-Jax, Lilydale

I remember so vividly wanting to unlock that code. I wrote this poem, which was published in my first collection of poetry, “What They Always Were,” from New Rivers Press. The book I am holding is “Ivanhoe,” which I never did read.

“The Child At Four”

Behind the colonnades, the only

architecture of the room, she sits

staring at the books

like pieces of sculpture.

She takes one out, feels the leather

the embossed gold,

as if it were braille and she

the diviner.


She knows the letters but not

the sounds. It is

impossible. She wants

to read the way her father does

crushing the newspaper in his lap

as he hollers out

to her mother the wonderful

terrible doings in the world.


Next year

when the leaves fall again and bedtime

comes early with the ceremony

of her mother reading

in the rocker,

after the summer games of blind-man’s bluff


in that time


she will walk to school

in a new dress (the sashes

of the old ones will be mended).

When her mother presents her, no one

will know how serious this love is.

She will hide it,

her one gold coin

among so many coppers.



Mary Joan Tomczak Nelson, Edina

I was 7 years old and in second grade when I learned to read. In 1962, I went to St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in south Minneapolis, where I was placed in the middle (average) of three reading groups. Finally being able to decode what words meant was really exciting.

Second grade was taught by a young nun, Sister Jonella Marie, who had a limited amount of patience. In the back of the room was a low shelf where the Dick and Jane readers were kept. My curiosity got the best of me and I just had to see what the highest reading group was reading and how it was different from what my group was reading.

Sister caught me doing this. She ordered me to clean out my desk, put on my coat and hat, go to the library and wait for her.

I was shocked and scared, wondering how I could ever explain this to my parents. I was also getting very hot, sitting there in my red wool coat. I don’t remember how long I sat there. Sister came back and informed me that the class took a vote to see if I should be allowed back into the class. She told me that I had won by one vote.

I didn’t cry about it and I never told my parents. She never told my parents either.

My love of reading only increased. What a delicious pastime.


Cynthia Kraack, St. Paul

I was 8. We moved from a very small town to Milwaukee and the nuns told my parents I couldn’t read and should be put back a grade. An elderly family friend spent two weekends with me. She read to me for hours. I read to her. I was launched! The greatest gift ever.


Jen Steele, Greenfield, Ind.

My grandmother tried telling me that I wasn’t reading, I was memorizing. So I read her the printing on her pack of Pall Malls.


Sandy Oftedahl, Oakdale

I have six older brothers and sisters, and they taught me to read when I was 3. The highlight of our week was going to the library with our box of books and replacing them with new ones.

We lived in a rented home with only three bedrooms — one for the two boys, one for the four girls and one for my parents. At age 3, with no where else to park me, I had the honor of sleeping in a crib in my parents’ bedroom.

My dad knew I loved to read, so he cut up an old can, connected a light from an old part of a lamp and hung it at the head of my crib. Yes, I would read at night in my crib in my parents’ bedroom. This could explain why I am the youngest child.


Sue Stromquist, Duluth

I don’t remember learning how. I do remember that Dick and Jane drove me nuts for being so immature.


Morgan Grayce Willow, Minneapolis

I remember pretending to read before I actually learned. Little did I know the big book on my lap was upside down. Didn’t stop the stories, though, which were from my imagination. Compared to those stories, Dick and Jane were really tame.


Jerdis Cerney, Minneapolis

I watched my dad. While mother and my older sister prepared the meals, Daddy would put on dime store reading glasses and read the Fargo Forum. I would sit on a footstool and watch him — his eyes moved, his lips did not. I figured the words were formed inside the throat. When Mother called that the food was ready, he would fold the paper neatly, get up from the well-worn chair and head to the kitchen to eat.

Seventy-one years later, I must read the daily Strib before I can start my day — even before my breakfast cereal. One difference: I must do the Suduko before I can read the important stuff. And I tend not to be as neat about folding it back up.


Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: On e-mail: