Bluefish by Pat SchmatzRecently during some pretend-play time, my two-year-old niece tucked me into bed and read me a bedtime story.

Of course she didn’t really read it to me. With each illustration, her memory triggered from the countless times Daddy read Olivier Dunrea’s Ollie aloud, and she recited each word flawlessly. A kind of decoding, it could be argued, but not true reading.

Yet for a blissful moment as I snuggled under a doll-sized blanket, I could imagine it. Reading is so commonplace, so easy for most people in my life, I could momentarily believe that this tiny person, so recently a baby, was reading me a story. It felt natural. Normal.

Yet it’s a remarkable feat, isn’t it? Gorillas can learn some basic sign, and dogs can apparently be trained to recognize words, but no other species comes close to the incredible things we can do in speaking, reading and writing. Phonemes come together to represent ideas, and then those sounds are further represented by these symbols on the page. It’s decoding that’s two abstract layers deep, yet somehow we all manage to master this skill by the time we’re still young children.

Well, most of us do.

In Bluefish we meet a 14-year-old protagonist who cannot read. We aren’t aware of that information at first. Like the parents and teachers who know him marginally, we might see Travis as indifferent. Guarded. Maybe a little rebellious or even lazy. A typical teenager, no? If only he would try harder. If only he would apply himself.

But then we learn of his problem, and we think of how little we know anyone. How much we can assume. And how mountainous of a task it would be to catch up to peers ahead of you by 10 years of reading.

Thank goodness he’s not alone. One wise teacher catches on, and with pointed references to The Book Thief, he has him start circling words just as Liesel did. An eccentric classmate, Velveeta, eventually figures it out as well, and offers her help. But there’s no romantic eureka moment in this process. It’s slow, often frustrating work. Velveeta, eager to see results, makes a painful mistake after a failed tutoring attempt:

“Travis, come on. You didn’t even try.”

Try. That word torched fire-hot.

Of course he’s trying; it’s the single most important skill in society. He can’t read, but he’s not a fool.

How many of us fervent readers might ask him to try harder? How easy it seems now, our linguistic synapses established so long ago. I see myself in Velveeta, eager to help and a bit clueless how to do so. Here’s something she’s good at, something she perhaps can fix – a marked difference from her own problems hidden beneath her exuberant exterior. Though Velveeta can’t fix Travis’ reading problem, she can be his friend, with all the trust and acceptance (and, yes, mistakes) that come with the job. And he can be hers right back.