Recall a childhood memory. What lesson did you learn from the experience?
My glistening mouth is frozen in a wide grimace; my eyes peer down into my little white book. My mother has asked me to read for her and I am determined to do so, despite my younger brother’s distracting presence. This is my mother’s first photograph of her literate daughter, but it is my brother that steals the show. He wobbles beside me, his face mirroring my intense concentration. I read from my book, aptly titled Little Miss Jealous, and he reads upside-down from his Mr Men edition. My lilting reader’s voice clashes with his infant language but, in that snapshot of time, we are united siblings.
I later hid my precious copies of Little Miss and Mr Men under my bed. Roger Hargreaves’ literary collection came in a mini-shelf case that made his palm-sized titles ideal to stack ‘n’ share, but I took my newfound reading abilities very seriously and could not bear to see my little brother make mockery of reading. In addition, the little Miss series was my introduction to the rainbow spectrum of human traits: happy, bossy, clever, greedy. I was fascinated by the stark contrast between virtue and vice long before I understood the concept of propriety and I did not want my little brother to intrude into my cocoon of wisdom. These were the justifiable excuses I gave for hoarding my books, but the wool was pulled from my eyes in an unlikely moment.”Little Miss Selfish.” My mother smiled at the new book in her hands. She had promised to read me a bedtime story as long as I lay still in bed and listened quietly. Upon the mention of my beloved “Little Miss” title, this seemingly unbearable compromise became a minor trade-off. I lay stock-still in bed, scarcely breathing as my mother proceeded to tell the story of an ochre-red, button-round Miss that refused to share. It did not matter that I could not see the illustrations in the book my mother held. Her words painted vivid pictures that washed feelings of guilt over me. In my mother’s story, Little Miss Selfish had hoarded toys and books until she had no friends. She realised her folly when Little Miss Fun hosted a wonderful party but did not invite Miss Selfish. All was forgiven when Little Miss Selfish arrived to the party with her treasures to share but it was then revealed that Little Miss Fun had invited her after all; Mr. Selfish had been charged with delivering Little Miss Selfish’s invitation, but had kept if for himself instead. My mother closed the book and placed it gingerly aside. “Do you think Little Miss Selfish would truly learn her lesson?”
The question remains unanswered, even today. I cannot confirm what further actions Miss Selfish made (the book character was entirely the fabrication of my mother even though she denies it), but I can say that I began to share my books with my brother thereafter. I became first his grudging co-adventurer in a world of upside down texts and images, then I learnt to be content with his fascination with reading upside down. I learnt, in essence, the importance of accepting viewpoints and traits that differed from mine. Today, my brother and I are far more than reading partners; we are sparring partners, debaters, and firm friends. When I look back at the aforementioned photograph that shows me reading my favourite book as a toddler, I finally understand that neither I nor my shining abilities was the focus. The essence of the photograph was to capture a rare moment of harmony and sameness in the most diverse of circumstances.