“Just Read,” Feb. 18, 2020

Do you remember the first time you held the world in the palm of your hand? One day when I was 8, my teacher took me aside and said, “You are an excellent reader.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll tell my grandmother you said so. She taught me to read.”

The teacher smiled and said, “I want you to represent our class in the school’s reading contest.”

It sounded important.

“What would I have to do?”

“Just read,” she said. “You’ll be fine. I’ll pick a book and mark pages for you to practice.”

Then she dropped the bomb: The contest would take place the following week in the school cafeteria in front of parents, teachers, administrators and the entire student body — or as my grandmother would say, in front of God and all his angels.

I didn’t sleep that week. The teacher gave me “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey, a book about a girl who goes berry picking with her mother and meets a mama bear and her cub. I read it until I knew it by heart.

The evening of the contest, my stepfather had to work at the mill. He’d never learned to read, but liked to brag, he said, that his 8-year-old stepdaughter was in a reading contest. It took me a while to realize he meant me.

My mother left my brothers with a neighbor and we drove to the school. The starch she put in my dress made my neck itch.

“Are you scared?” she said.

“No, ma’am,” I lied.

She had quit school at 15 to marry and have babies, but she placed a high value on reading.

“You’re a good reader,” she said. “Just read. You’ll be fine.”

The cafeteria was packed. Mama found a seat in back and I took my place down in front.

One by one, the readers read. They were good. I hoped they’d never stop. When my turn came, I couldn’t find my mother’s face in the crowd. But I recalled what she and my teacher had told me.

So I did what they said. I just read. When I got to the part where the bears showed up, I looked around the room and realized every eye was watching me, every ear was listening. I had the whole world, it seemed, right in the palm of my hand.

When I reached the page my teacher had marked for me to stop, I read another page. And another. Finally, I gave a quick curtsy and sat down. It was the first time I’d heard applause just for me. Except the day my blind brother clapped when I showed him how to shoot a cap pistol.

I never expected to win that contest. Imagine my surprise when they handed the trophy for First Place — to me.

I don’t know if I’ve told all my grandchildren that story. Even if I have, I’ll tell it again soon.

Last week, Henry, who is 8, was asked to read a few lines for a school assembly. So he invited me to come hear him.

“Are you scared?” I said.

“No, Nana,” he lied.

“You’re a great reader,” I said. “Just read. You’ll be fine.”

And that is what he did.

I wish you could’ve heard him.

That evening, we sat on a bench, Henry and I, watching the sunset and talking.

“How did you feel reading at the assembly today?” I asked.

He thought about it. Then he held out his hand, palm up, and said, “It was wonderful, Nana. All those people were listening to me. I felt like I had the world in the palm of my hand.”

Reading puts the world not only in our palms, but in our hearts and in our souls. It takes us on grand adventures to places we’ve never been and into the minds of people we’ll never meet. It tells us truths that are thousands of years old and lets us pick berries with bears.

Whether we read to ourselves, or to a sleepy toddler, or to a loved one who is dying, or to a roomful of strangers who will suddenly become our friends — reading puts the world in the palm of our hand.

Just read. You’ll be fine.


  1. There you go, making my eyes leak again (as Annie would say). Thanks, dear one.

  2. Kirby Carespodi says

    I absolutely love your column…and miss it now that it’s not in my paper. I followed your journey to California (ofallplaces) and Nevada and the loss of one husband and discovery of another. My mother (back when teachers were asked to quit their jobs if they got pregnant) considered me her ‘project’ and taught me to read when I was three. By first grade, I was reading on a sixth grade level (whatever guise that took) and the teachers in my tiny town just shrugged their shoulders and turned me loose. I read every single book in the children’s room at the Wolcott Civic Free Library (Carolyn Haywood was a favorite author) and then saved my allowance to buy all the new Trixie Belden’s when they arrived at Streeter’s Five and Dime. Then, like all good readers with limited options, I became an English teacher. Then, like Jessica Fletcher, I retired and started writing…but not as well as you. Dammit.

  3. Linda Elliott says

    I enjoy your column so much, and this was one of my favorites. It brings back memories of being too shy to speak and answer questions my teachers would ask in class….but when I was asked to read, I felt so confident….as if I held the world in the palm of my hand. Today, I delight in hearing my grandchildren read, as I’m sure you do with Henry❤️.

  4. I loved this column so much I think I’ll drop by the library and readBlueberries for Sal. 💕 Joyous Marie

  5. Blueberries for Sal was my first favorite book. The start of a lifetime of favorite books. Thanks for reminding me.

  6. Janet K Gallino says

    Dear Sharon, I’m so glad they encouraged you to read because it has enabled you to write prose like poetry. I have enjoyed your columns since the mid 90’s and discovered my dad was also following you in our local paper. It’s still the first thing we read on Sunday mornings.We both have a copy of your lovely book as well. Thank you for another heart touching reminder that reading makes a connection between people and places in a world too big for us to have ever met.

  7. Judith Bridger says

    Yes. Yes. And yes.

  8. I have lived reading since I was a small girl. I reread books to refresh my self about the story. I think reading opens doors to people and places that are out of reach in a lot of people’s lives. Reading a book can settle my soul and give me peace when I feel my anxiety ratchet up.

  9. Toddy Satryan says

    I can’t imagine life without reading. I always loved reading to my children.
    Then I enjoyed reading to my students. Now I love to read to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You are an inspiration to so many. Thank you.

  10. I’ve loved reading since I was old enough to read. I passed that interest onto my daughter too. Thanks Sharon by now you know how we all feel about you and your columns. Keep them coming.😊

    • Sharon, LOVE this post! Thanks for sharing your memories. One of my greatest joys in life has been teaching my children to read. They are voracious readers. Now I enjoy hearing my grandchildren read aloud. A child’s world gets bigger with books!

  11. Shirley Thacker says

    Love, love, love. I met Dick Jane, Sally, Spot and my world changed forever. Reading has been such a joy! I try every day to share that with my students! Thank you for sharing!

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