Primary School Theme 3: Reading and Writing

Celeste
5 min readJan 25, 2021

Reading and writing was a cornerstone of my childhood. Somehow, stronger memories are associated with writing — perhaps because reading is a passive consumption, whereas writing an active production? (Clearly borrowing words from my sister’s latest essay)

I’m not sure where the love of reading came from. Maybe it stemmed from being an introverted kid. I loved going to the school library, the one shaped like a submarine, and perusing the titles on various shelves. One of my early memories were of the “Great Illustrated Classics” for children, including Dracula (the notion of drawing blood felt erotic back then, even if I lacked the vocabulary to comprehend it), The Picture of Dorian Gray, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My best friend Eugenia accompanied me, and as we grew older we moved on to other authors, like my sister’s favourite Jacqueline Wilson.

The school’s book fair was the best. In those book fairs, we were initiated to the world of True Singapore Ghost Stories, Mr Midnight titles, Mary Kate and Ashley’s Two of a Kind, and Archie comics (which brought American culture to us: referring to your dad as ‘pop’, drinking milkshakes with your pals, flirting by the lockers, riding with your friends in convertible with the top down). In my diaries, I would draw (terrible) caricatures of Mary Kate and Ashley, wishing I could dress up like them.

Eugenia came from a more well-to-do family, and purchased full sets of The Princess Diaries, Mediator and A Series of Unfortunate Events. My sister and I borrowed book after book from her shelf, and I admired how one could own the full collection, showing off a beautiful series of book spines on a bookshelf.

Roald Dahl was another classic. I will forever remember watching the 1990 film adaptation of The Witches in Coral Primary, and my friend Sherlyn shielding my eyes when the Grand High Witch’s visage was revealed. Roald Dahl brought us a sense of wonderment, the real mixed with the slightly unreal, with fantastical creatures like Willy Wonka interacting with everyday children like Charlie.

When I was 11–12, I chanced upon Memoirs of a Geisha on the family bookshelf. I remember feeling grossed out by all the pervvy older man lusting after the young protagonist, and not knowing why the protagonist ‘bled’ on the white cloth. I wrote a review of the book on my class blog, largely borrowing words from the book excerpt at the back page of the book sleeve. I even won an award for my review in front of the school. I wondered if the teachers thought it was inappropriate for a young girl to read it, or wanted to reward her ‘precociousness’ with it. Oh, when we were young and thought we were special!

Another precociousness I knowingly showed off was during the Primary 6 English oral examinations. The topic was (thankfully) on reading, and I told the examiners my favourite author was Agatha Christie. It was an author introduced to us by our second aunt, when she brought back tattered versions from the library and gently encouraged me to read it. Was it Murder On the Orient Express, And Then There Were None or A Pocketful of Rye which I read back then? Anyway I remember telling them that her plot twists were simply marvelous, and observing their look of surprised wonderment, I knew I had aced the exam.

Writing comes hand in hand with reading. I remember submitting an essay to the Little Bookworm Club, or a blurb to Kids Central, and winning prizes for them. I always loved all the writing assignments we were given. When I was 8 or 9, my English teacher told us to keep a diary and write in it every day. In one of my first entries, I fantasised that Peter Parker, Spiderman, was my brother. I think it was this imagination that sparked off the Birdstreet series with my younger sister, where Peter Parker’s fictional sister, Alicia, made friends with Thiddle Bean, a confident young girl who had wealthy parents and some superpowers.

I enjoyed writing compositions and my favourite device was the plot twist. (Maybe I got that from Agatha Christie?) I remember being a ‘good enough’ writer to be enrolled into those after-class writing workshops. One day, for an English composition, I decided to have fun by writing my crush and I into my essay. I was 9–10. I wrote that the both of us had gone on an adventure and fought crime together. To my mortification, the teacher had liked my essay enough and decided to show it to the class. She censored my name, but not Russell’s name, and my classmates who read it knew the author had a biiiig crush. It was the most embarrassing and longest hour of my life as she ran through paragraph by paragraph on the analog projector. The whole class was giggling and tittering to each other.

Writing wasn’t always a solo activity. Sherlyn and I co-wrote a novel about students with superpowers who fought against evil monsters. We were heavily inspired by Mathilda, I recall, and the ethos of children struggling against adults and emerging victorious. When we went on to different classes in Primary 5, I started writing all novels of a teenage girl called Brittany on foolscap paper. It wasn’t before long my stories were passed around class for classmates to read, before it was confiscated by the teacher. Then my classmates decided to make it a group activity where we would all take turns to write the same novel. We would write a paragraph or two, and pass it to the next person. It was a disaster. Each girl would want to write themselves in as a character, to give themselves more air time, and there was the lack of a central plot and a flow to the story. Eventually it became too ludicrous to continue, and the project was shelved.

The last thing I want to talk about writing is coding. I find both actions similar… you either write a story or you write a script. Both require some logic and creativity. When Shermaine, the eternal cool girl who topped the school in that year’s PSLE examinations, introduced me to the world of Matmice and HTML coding, I was hooked. It was writing on a different medium, from paper to a keyboard, and through coding you could design your own interface. That fateful afternoon eating popcorn chicken, which she no doubt microwaved herself, spawned into 4–6 years of a web obsession.

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