Books: Reading and Making

Kage Baker was an avid reader.  She started early – before kindergarten, being one of those kids who figures out the trick while their parents read to them. Kimberly did, too. They started off their school careers already  well past Dick, Jill, Sally, Puff and Spot;  I wandered into first grade knowing my alphabet but with no idea of how the letters worked. I left that way, too.

While Kage was scornfully passing up Dr. Seuss (She thought he was silly. Kind of funny, when you consider her eventual story cycle …) and Kimberly was discovering comic books, I was still in an illiterate fog. Literally, since the real problem was that – from my seat in the back of the rows – the blackboard was an enormous vista of fog and confusion. I was tall for my age and incredibly short-sighted: I got stuck at the end of the rows, and spent my school days blind. (I wouldn’t get glasses until I was 11.)

I did eventually learn to read, during the Christmas holidays of my second grade. My dad and I spent most of that time in my top bunk bed, where he finally unlocked the secrets of printing for my dim eyes. The first thing I read on my own was a Pogo cartoon; then I started in on our 7 sets of household encyclopedias. It was obvious pretty quickly that my father, by rendering me literate, had created a monster: now that I could read, I could not stop.

Dick, Jill, Sally, Puff and Spot, I discovered, were really, really dull.

By that time, my sisters were successfully deciphering cursive script. They loved Babar the Elephant. I hated it, and had a dreadful time reading anything but print. Luckily, the library turned out to have thousands of books, ALL of which were printed! I was delighted to find out that the world favoured printing over cursive; I set to reading everything I could get my hands on.

The only hand writing I could ever decipher with ease was my own, and Kage’s. Mine was judged to be a ticket to hell by the nuns who tried, vainly, to teach me Palmer script. Kage’s was even worse – she was left-handed. But at least she could spell, which saved her from a lot of rancour. I couldn’t write legibly or spell.

However, no matter how much it seems you will never escape the tyranny of penmanship classes, ultimately they have to send you on to high school. And in high school, while your teachers might yell about your horrible hand-writing, they mostly let you alone as long as you completed the work … and man, Kage and I were good at that.

High school is also where you discover typewriters, which were a gateway drug for the two of us. We wheedled used manual typewriters for birthdays, and spent hours crouched over the ancient machines, banging away until our fingers bled. Any of you, Dear Readers, who ever worked on a manual keyboard, will understand. The rest of you were born too late to experience this bone-rattling, joint-destroying, tissue-degrading past-time. I hope you’re all grateful for computer keyboards. They’re like typing on marshmallows – I don’t see how anyone even gets carpal tunnel anymore.

Once the fervour of producing  printed pages wore off a little, Kage found she actually preferred composing in long-hand. So did I; but I was getting bored partway through a plot, suddenly, and eschewing writing for the easier world of pre-written books …

So we came fairly quickly to a division of labour – Kage wrote stories in longhand that only I could read; I typed faster than she did, and soon found access to electric typewriters that made me even faster. And that was how it fell out. Kage wrote and wrote and wrote, and I typed and typed and typed. She loved the neat pages all in an identical font, that could be painstakingly sewn together and illustrated and bound. And I loved seeing her stories get longer and longer, giving me better and better worlds to explore …

Eventually, Kage learned how to compose directly on to the screen of a computer. That let her take almost complete control of the process from Idea to Book. My role changed to sounding board and research assistant. And Dedicated Reader, of course. Every version of every story ran first under my eyes – I was the last one to read a book before it was loosed into the Wild Country of publishing; I was the first one to read it when it came back tamed and bound and carrying Kage’s name into the world.

Kage couldn’t stand to look at one of her books by the time it was done. Sometimes she read them much later; mostly, she didn’t because she immediately wanted to change them. Instead, especially during her last year, I read them aloud to her – just about all of them. It’s about as close as I ever got to regretting Kage’s prolific output …

In the meantime, I have gotten very good on a keyboard. I made my living doing data entry for 40 years. And I can still read Kage’s appalling handwriting better than anyone else can. So we’re still doing the same old Book dance. I’m taking dictation from a lot further distance, but the notes are just as illegible as ever.  Sometimes, what comes out of deciphering that confusion of swirls, loops and rainbow-leaking ink is a word so peculiar and unexpected that it changes the narrative to something I had never imagined.

And that, Dear Readers, is where the stories come from: old notes, cryptic writing, sudden blinding flashes of realization.  Those are the books we are still making, Kage and I.



About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to Books: Reading and Making

  1. maggiros says:

    I started banging on my dad’s Remington “Quietwriter” manual typewriter at about the age of 8, which given the “bone-rattling, joint-destroying, tissue-degrading past-time” explains a lot about the arthritis nodules in some of my knuckles today. I still can’t type worth a damn, but what can I do. I taught myself some terrible habits that a typing class couldn’t entirely correct. So there we are.


    • Kate says:

      I took typing in high school, and found that I oo had already taught myself my own method – which was not translatable. I could type at a decent speed, but it wasn’t using the accepted method; I learned, instead, to hide my eccentricity and passed without problems. I also passed all job-related tests, and topped out at 70 wpm in my prime: no one ever asked me if I could touch-type, only what my speed was and could I pass the test? At least I used all 10 fingers – Kage had a two-finger style that looked like Chico Marx playing the piano.


  2. mizkizzle says:

    This brings back memories, not very nice ones, of Phonics Hell in first grade.
    I taught myself to read when I was three, only to have the next-door neighbor tell my mother that kindergarten teachers preferred their young pupils to be illiterate. Mom then tried to prevent me from reading, hoping I’d forget how. It was like something out of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, without the sinister fundamentalist overtones.
    Unlearning didn’t work, fortunately, but phonics with all that nonsensical “ah, Eh, Ee, oo, ooh,” very nearly did. I saw no use for it, preferring to simply read.
    Oh yeah, fun times.
    Then there was the teacher who tried (and partially succeeded) to turn me into a right-hander by tying my left hand behind my back. It was nuts, I tell you!
    You can guess how my handwriting turned out.
    Reading your post really brought back memories.


    • Kate says:

      Kage got some of that “Thou shalt not be left-handed” crap, until Momma visited brimstone upon the nuns. Phonics, oddly, didn’t bother Kage at all – I don’t think she actually listened to it; she was adept at just sitting at her desk looking blank. I actually found them useful, but I was the late bloomer … But both Kage and Kimberly got yelled at for being literate “too soon”. Our parents fought ferociously in their defense and the whole brouhaha blew over by about 4th grade … when kids with much worse “problems” were demanding attention.

      The 4th grade was also where I got sent to the principal’s office for being discovered reading a book during phonics class. Not the text book: I was hiding “The Odyssey” behind “Learning With Phonics”. The principal just told me to please not read recreationally during class and sent me back …


  3. Lynn says:

    We must all have handwriting stories. Mine was so bad in middle school that the Vice Principal and I had an after-school date every day for six months. I got bored writing from the Palmer book and started to make each word a scallop: first letter leaned completely to the left, and so clockwise until the last letter leaned completely to the right. Eventually the VP gave up saying that I could stay in her office for the rest of my life but until I wanted to improve myself I’d always have bad handwriting. So be it.

    I’m very thankful, Kathleen, that you have continued to take dictation. We need to keep hearing your voices.


    • Kate says:

      And yet – at my advanced age, I am now often lauded for my handwriting. It hasn’t improved, but younger people now receive no penmanship instruction at all. In some schools, cursive is no longer even taught. So even a scrawl like mine, with it’s faded, ragged remnants of the Palmer method still clinging to it, looks like Copperplate next to the staggering efforts of most of the generation behind me.

      I love your scallop design! That’s really inventive.


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