First Leap To Learning How to Read

First Leap To Learning How to Read

By Emily Brisse


I remember a frog—a green one, and speckled. He must have been on an adventure, leaping from one place to another—from land to a lily pad, or from a lily pad to land. I can’t say which; all I saw were his back legs, a tipped down and lazy V, bent and vaulting onto the next page. How do I know it was even a he, that frog? Did he have a name? Some larger purpose beyond that leap? I’ve tried finding answers to these questions—I asked my mother, librarians, elementary-school teachers, the Internet—those inter-webbed webs of message boards devoted to children’s books about frogs—but the pond is too big. Frogs that are just two green legs jumping from one white page onto another are as indistinguishable as water weeds.

Unless you’re me.

If you’re me, you remember those two green legs, those two green keys, as vividly as spears of light because they mark the moment when language unlocked and you started to read.

I wonder now if that’s why I can’t remember the frog’s body or face, because the moment was so bright, and all the illumination breaking open made me close my eyes so it wouldn’t escape—leap.

Whatever the reason, I remember it. I’ve always remembered it. I was young, maybe three? My mother was there. We each tell the story. “I’m reading!” I’d said, clutching the book, pointing at the legs and the letters.

It was memory, of course; I’d memorized the words from my mother’s repeated renderings. I watched the movement of her hands against the print, the way certain words were paired with certain images. There was a rhythm. A timing. A hop and a skip and a jump from one idea to the next. I’d put it together and had the dance, had the beat and the steps and the sound, I was swimming, floating, leaping.

It was performance. But it was for me. It was because I wanted to know the steps so badly, how to kick my two green legs in just the right way.

It was memory.

But it was reading.

I was reading.

You can’t unleap a leap like that. The pond is too big.

So I am reading still, tonight about a tiger with four orange legs. I have fewer questions. I know the story’s title. I know the purpose of the journey. I know the tiger—a he—has stripes, and why they’re there. He is wearing a top hat, which is part of the journey. He says funny things about dancing and top hats and green olives. Every detail, the rhythms, the timing, each word—I read it. I read it aloud, with a kind of gusto, the vim that arises from the best corners of childhood. And I watch my son, not yet three, sitting on my lap, yes, but not really—really he is in the book, in the story, finding his way among the stripes and the olives, the dancing and the letters.

I feel him stalking along behind those four orange legs, making his own discriminate leaps. I haven’t said where they will lead him, but even without the words, I know he understands.

Emily Brisse’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Literary Mama, Mamalode, and Two Hawks Quarterly. She teaches English at Breck School in Minneapolis and reads picture books every night.