One person who came to mind was Miss Hill, the librarian at my grammar school, Rheems Elementary. At the time the kids in each grade were divided into three reading groups depending on their reading level. They would determine which group a child belonged in by having him or her read a passage from a book to the teacher. I have always been a shy person but when I was in first grade I had a severe case of performance anxiety, not to mention that that particular teacher was a very intimidating woman. So, although I was reading at a much higher level than most first graders, when it came time for me to read my passage from the book, I froze. I did manage to get through it but I was so nervous that it seemed that I struggled with the words. So, the teacher placed me in the middle reading group.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I certainly was not challenged by our assigned readings. Since my mother took me to the public library every week, I rarely took books out of the school’s library. One day, a few years later when I was in the third grade, I decided to check out a book that was at a higher reading level than what I was supposed to be reading. When I presented the book to Miss Hill, she raised her eyebrows and asked, "Are you sure you’ll be able to read this?"
"Yes," I replied. (I don’t recall the title of the book, now).
"Well, why don’t you read some of it to me before I stamp it."
Now, Miss Hill was such a kind and fun person that I felt no intimidation and no fear, so when I read to her from the book I did so with confidence. When I finished, she flipped through a binder and scanned down a list of students. When she got to my name, she said, "I think you’re in the wrong reading group."
Thankfully, Miss Hill took it upon herself to bring my reading abilities to the attention of my teacher. After another reading to my teacher, I was promoted to the advanced reading group. Which, for me was a good confidence booster. The reading assignments, however, were still not challenging.
Another reason I remember Miss Hill fondly, is for the enthusiasm with which she read to the children during story hour in the library. I looked forward to those days when my classmates and I would shuffle down the gleaming school halls to the library. We would sit in a semi-circle around Miss Hall and be completely enthralled by her performance. Because really, reading to a child can be like a performance, especially the way Miss Hill read. She would always get into character for the dialogue bits and never rushed the story.
There are two books that she read to us that really stuck with me because the way she read them would send my classmates and I into hysterics. They just happen to be by the same author and illustrator team.
The first is Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent. To this day, the book is still a lot of fun to read to children, even though in recent years it has come under some scrutiny for its accuracy. There are many claims that the story is really not derived from Chinese folk lore. However, I never forgot Tikki Tikki Tembo’s full name because of the way Miss Hill read it to us (Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo).
A couple of years ago, I was really itching to get my hands on a first edition of this book. I was shocked when I did an Internet search and found no copies. At least, no copies that weren’t either ex-library or soft cover reprints. I added it to my want list on ABE and waited. When it didn’t turn up after a few months, I decided to email a few other booksellers I know to see if possibly any of them had a copy that they hadn’t listed online. I was in luck. A dealer in the Midwest happened to have a copy. I had to pay dearly for.
When I received the book, I immediately sat on the floor and read it. All the while, I had the voice of Miss Hill in my head and I swear I traveled back in time. I was seven years old again, sitting cross-legged in the library of Rheems Elementary school. So, whenever I need that kind of comfort, I just pull Tikki Tikki Tembo from my bookshelf and take another journey.
It was with the same vigor and enthusiasm that Miss Hill read Tikki Tikki Tembo to us, that she also employed in the reading of The Funny Little Woman. I can still picture her as she covered her mouth and let her voice rise an octave whenever the Funny Little Woman laughed, ‘Tee-he-he-he.’
I do have a copy of this book in my personal collection, which is signed by Blair Lent. I have an unsigned first edition in my inventory. This book also carries a relatively high price tag because Lent was awarded the Caldecott Medal for the artwork. Oddly enough, it is easier to find than Tikki Tikki Tembo.
Anyway, I’m very grateful to Miss Hill, not only for helping me move up to a higher reading group, but for teaching me, possibly unknowingly, how much fun reading can be.