When you gather a lot of information, there’s always some left on the cutting room floor, so to speak . Because I’m a teacher, I began tagging things I’d read about Theodore Roosevelt’s language development; some I used in my book and some I didn’t. I rolled snippets together into a chapter at the end. Although my favorite part of The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt is always going to be the chapter about Theodore and his friend, Fred, the one about how he became a “literary feller,” the author of countless speeches, magazine articles and over thirty books, comes in a close second.
Why do some children learn to read sooner than others? Why are there excellent readers who would rather do something else? How is writing learned? Is it a gift? Is it hampered by strict adherance to mechanics and grammar? Should boys and girls be required to sit and write during the same period every day at school? And where does speaking fit into that picture?
If I had all the right answers I’d be Education Czar of America and we’d be a nation of Ernest Hemingways. But a few years in the classroom helped me note what Theodore had in common with the best of them: speakers, readers, and writers.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (National Park Service photo)
His parents were role models. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (Thee) loved to read. He would recite chapters of scripture to his future mother-in-law when he was courting Martha (Mittie) in antebellum Georgia. Mittie was a wonderful storyteller herself and later enchanted her children with tales of her childhood and ancestors. They both treasured books, of which there were many in the home’s library.
They read a variety of materials. One of the children’s favorites was a magazine called Our Young Folks, which exposed them to authors of classics and values of the Victorian Era.
Poetry was important to their thinking. They memorized it, the rhyme and rhythm of the words becoming second nature to them.
The family constantly wrote letters. In the days before telephones and even typewriters, they communicated by writing longhand in cursive, which, by the way, was carefully developed. They took time to think and organize their thoughts on paper.
The children were exposed to many people, ideas, and great architecture and art. They were fortunate enough to go with their family on two year-long tours of Europe after the Civil War.
They were given blank books to compose stories in, take notes in, and keep diaries.
Teedie’s first diary. Note his use of specific measurements. (National Park Service photo)
They played word games for fun. Crambo was a favorite, in which they’d make up rhymes about each other.
Theodore wrote about what interested him. He learned more about science from a taxidermist and two uncles who were specialists in conservation and medicine.
Theodore’s young life was full of “being there” experiences, literally a series of what we would call field trips. Especially notable were his ventures into the outdoors at their summer houses. Then he could, as we’re still urged today, “Write about what you know.”
The children belonged to literary clubs. Some were girls only, some were boys and girls, but they met to read each other’s writing and had studio pictures taken of their small groups. Selfies in a writing club today would be fun, don’t you think?
The Dresden American Literary Club: Theodore, brother Elliott, cousin Maude, sister Corinne, and cousin Johnny. (National Park Service photo)
I hope these observations are helpful for someone working with a struggling reader, which I once was. While physical limitations do play into literacy, there are some things, most of all a LOVE for books and language, that can be given without danger of overdose. It won’t matter if the reading or writing is done on a thin piece of wood pulp, or on an electronic screen.