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The treasure of a pirate tale

Across a sea of letters sailed a pirate ship, launching a first-grader into literacy.

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One look at the pirate on the cover – crimson bandanna, cutlass, big wide belt – and I felt the old feeling. I always judge a book by its cover.

And this was my very first book – rediscovered on the top shelf of Brickbat Books on 4th Street in Philadelphia. "Look Out for Pirates!" and I had been separated for lo, these 40-something years ... but we were finally being reunited. It was an amazing feeling – my "Rosebud" experience.

I could remember one of our last encounters with crystal clarity. After my very first day in first grade at Lincolnwood Elementary School in Evanston, Ill., I had came home, bursting through the front door and going straight to the living room bookshelf. "Mom! I can read now," I exclaimed.

I pulled out "Look Out for Pirates!," crouched on the floor, and slowly turned the pages looking at all the familiar illustrations and especially the opening line: "It was a dark night." Captain Jim was saving the town's gold from the pirates, sailing it to safety under cover of darkness. But a pirate was watching, then signaling his no-good pirate gang, and following in hot pursuit. Yup, I was ready to do this by myself. I, too, was in hot pursuit – of reading.

The words were no more comprehensible to me that afternoon than they had been that morning, when I had "read" my favorite book before going to school.

But as of the end of the first day of first grade, I was confident that the time to read had come. So read I would. What I was actually doing had a type of authentic literacy to it, if not actual verbal understanding. Turning the pages in our childhood books, imitating the flow of the gaze from top to bottom of the page, looking at thousands of letters and words before knowing their meaning – but knowing they have meaning – this is the path toward literacy and fluency.

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