Ian McMillan: Literally magic

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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As someone who has loved reading for as long as I can remember, I find myself getting very excited at those moments when babies start to recognise that those runic squiggles the grown-ups are pointing to and making noises around are actually symbols that communicate the meanings behind the sounds the adults are making. There’s a fantastic tipping point when the shapes and sounds solidify into that thing we call reading and it’s a moment that I find thrilling and moving in equal measure. It’s a constant miracle, happening all the time all over the world. Or sometimes not, which is a very sad thing.

My granddaughter Isla is nine months old and she’s at that almost-reading stage I’ve just described. She comes to our house (not on her own on the bus, of course: she’s very bright but not quite that forward) points at the box of her books and picks some out to look at. She sits and looks at them with us and points and makes noises that are almost words but not quite but will soon, very soon, become words.

I often wonder what’s going on in a baby’s brain as all the connections are made, one after the other

She’s a big fan of those books where you have to lift the flap to find something underneath, and she loves the classic Spot the Dog and Rod Campbell books that entertained my children when they were little. From a very early age, and even before she could manipulate her fingers to actually do the deed, Isla realised that the flap could be lifted up to find some kind of narrative or visual treasure underneath, which is of course a metaphor for the act of reading, of lifting up the flap of the language to discover something amazing.

I often wonder what’s going on in a baby’s brain as all the connections are made, one after the other, and the realisation that words are waiting to be spoken and written and understood occurs somewhere behind the forehead. I’m glad that I’m not clever enough to work out how it happens, because I prefer it to be magic.

I’m describing this in language that some would call poetic or flowery or (wonderful word) highfalutin but really it’s just more fun to stop talking about it and watch Isla reaching for a board book and opening it and pointing to the picture and listening to somebody saying the words underneath and then trying to say the words back, and then it’s fun to imagine her journey of reading, her slow and steady trek from board books to books with a few words in, to more complex books, to comics and graphic novels and textbooks and blockbusters and poems and literary novels and academic books that she has to take her time with, lifting the arcane flaps to find enlightenment beneath.

And of course, Isla, once you’ve mastered the art of reading there’s one piece of elegant prose you’ll turn to every week: that’s right, this column.

Hey, who’s lifting my flap?