8-year-old puts love of reading to use as writer

The Education Beat

Books: A Catonsville third-grader has plans for her horror sequel.

January 09, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SHE CLAIMS TO HAVE read a thousand books, many of them more than once. She's written one book, "Bloody Fingers," and is planning a sequel, "Bloody Fingers: The Ghost's Revenge."

She plunges eagerly into an interview, fidgeting with her hair, swinging jean-clad legs beneath the adult chair in the principal's office, jumping up to demonstrate how a ghost flies.

Her mother calls her precociousness "scary." Her teacher marvels at "how well she expresses herself through her reading and writing."

Caitlin Smith is all of 8 years old.

The third-grader at Catonsville Elementary School in Baltimore County explains how she has read 1,000 books, though she says she learned to read three years ago in kindergarten.

Caitlin has as many as five books "going" at one time. When she first learned to read, her mother showered her with little picture books that Caitlin could knock off in an hour or so and then read again and again.

"I still have them," says Caitlin, sounding like a 60-year-old who has kept the old Nancy Drews.

Caitlin says she can't remember precisely when she learned to read. "I can't remember much of anything else that happened that far back, probably." But she can remember how she learned to read.

Her mother, Carol Walter, had been reading to her since Caitlin's birth -- before her birth, actually. As she approached kindergarten age, Caitlin remembers, "She would read the first couple of sentences, and then I would try to read on from there. If I had trouble with the words, she would obviously have to help."

In kindergarten, if Caitlin stumbled on a word, she was taught to sound it out and, if that didn't help, to look it up. "Looking it up helps with the pronunciation," she says.

Caitlin knows the value of spelling. "Reading and spelling go together," she says, "because you have to spell to know how to read."

But in the next breath, she says she hates spelling. When teacher Valerie Rutherford breaks off the morning reading period for a spelling lesson, she often pulls Caitlin out of a reading reverie. For Caitlin, reading and dreaming should never be interrupted.

"Stopping in the middle of a chapter is like waking up in the middle of a dream," says the girl.

Caitlin's reading taste is eclectic, but she prefers mysteries. She likes some classics. She's reading a Nancy Drew -- the new, updated Nancy Drew, not the mid-century variety -- and is a fan of the Boxcar Children series.

She also likes the Mary-Kate and Ashley series, and for laughs she turns to Pippi Longstocking. "She's pretty funny," Caitlin observes of Astrid Lindgren's classic 9-year-old heroine, the girl whose braids stick out. "She thinks she can buy spunk."

At Caitlin's party for her eighth birthday, she and friends took turns reading a Pippi Longstocking tale. That's reading for pleasure.

For school assignments last fall, Caitlin read everything she could get her hands on about dinosaurs, featured in Catonsville's third-grade Core Knowledge Curriculum, studies full of historical facts and figures.

Rutherford has Caitlin reading "The Borrowers," about tiny people who live beneath the floorboards in the houses of the creatures they call "human beans."

"It's a good book for Caitlin," Rutherford says. "It has an enriched vocabulary with words like `rheumatic.' If you can read well, you generally can write well, and she's way up there."

Caitlin wrote "Bloody Fingers" in Open Door, an after-school program at Catonsville. She's plotting the sequel. "It's going to be really funny," she says. "The ghost with the bloody fingers is going to wake up and get revenge by going over the whole world and dripping blood on it."

She jumps from the chair, arms flying, to show Catherine Amsel, the Catonsville principal, and me how ghosts fly. Amsel and I comment on the humor of ghosts dripping with blood, but then we're not 8 years old, and our only flying is on airplanes.

It's this vivid imagination, combined with natural ability, that makes Caitlin so remarkable, says Rutherford. "Caitlin doesn't need a lot of prompting," she observes. "She's a great risk-taker, and she's very independent."

Caitlin's mother agrees. "High-strung" is a word that's been used to describe Caitlin, Walter says. "She questions everything. She has an amazing imagination. And she just reads and reads and reads."

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