George and Martha and genuine laughter


george and martha 2I read one of James Marshall’s George and Martha books for the first time with E when he was in kindergarten. We were sitting in the beautiful library of the fancy private school where his winter break camp was being held. We had some time to kill, and snuggling up on a couch together and reading a book was much better than shivering at the park across the street, as we’d done the day before. He picked out a book of George and Martha stories, which I vaguely remembered from my own childhood, but that hadn’t yet made it into my kids’ libraries yet. Each of these stories ended abruptly, and, in their abruptness, hilariously. After the first of these weirdly funny endings, I laughed–spontaneously and genuinely–and so did E. I think it was the first time he heard me laugh at a book–just at the book itself, not at his enjoyment or laughter at what we were reading. Of course he’d heard me laugh at the things
he thought were funny: for months, he would dissolve into hysterics when he heard the words “or something,” thanks to the cheeky repetition of this phrase in Kate DiCamillo’s paen to squirrels and poetry, Flora and Ulysses. He laughed uproariously–and, eventually, moved on to relishing the performance of laughing uproariously–whenever he heard these words, and I laughed right along with him. But this moment we shared with Marshall’s hilariously dignified pachyderms was different: in that moment of shared enjoyment, we were equals. I wasn’t laughing down at him, beaming with delight at his happiness–I was laughing with my own happiness, and so was he, and we were together in a new way.


When Sheep Cannot Sleep and J’s counting voice

eye-chart-for-childrenI loved watching my daughter read the eye chart at the pediatrician’s office for the first time. She stood in the center of the room, her tiny hand just big enough to cover her eye, and named each picture with characteristically emphatic deliberation: “boat,” “hawt,” “star,” and “ciwcle.”

I thrilled to her voice: there she was, confidently naming a distilled version of the world with her imperfect pronunciations, and everyone in the room listened intently. Soon she’ll talk like an adult—all of her uniquely babyish lisps and urgent enunciations will be gone. Things will no longer be gweat, only great; her love for us will no longer be the enthusiastically declared wuv of her four-year-old self. Those silhouetted graphics evinced a spontaneous performance, formalized by the clinical atmosphere of the doctor’s office, of a voice my daughter (and I) will soon lose sight of.

Hearing J 91QV4CYhSNLname each of the pictures—apples, bubbles, peas, tulips—that appears on the final page of Satoshi Kitamura’s  counting book, When Sheep Cannot Sleep, reminded me of this eye chart experience. The title of this book itself, in its rejection of contractions, echoes the kind of precise pronunciation, correct or not, that I relish hearing in my children’s voices. The narrative chronicles the adventures of Woolly, an insomniac sheep, who travels through a countryside setting and into an oddly vacant house in his efforts to tire himself out. If you didn’t know it was a counting book, you might miss it—I think I did the first time, charmed as I was by Woolly’s completely unselfconscious choices to take up whatever it is that appears before him. “Colored pencils! Good. I’ll do some drawing,” he decides at one point, when confronted a tiny desk full of said pencils in the weirdly empty house. Woolly’s game for anything: coloring, cooking peas, taking a bubble bath–assuming, like a child might, that whatever’s there has been specially prepared just for him. The final page lists all of the objects hidden in plain sight throughout the book and meant to be counted. Each group of objects has a number next to it, and the word that spells out the number. When J and I read this book for a few nights in a row, I would read the numbers and she would “read” the pictures. Her little voice was like an added illustration, just as delightful as Kitamura’s tiny pictures on that final page. I loved hearing the note of triumph in her voice, proud to name the pictures correctly, and I loved being able to concentrate on how her voice formed the words, imagining how she and only she would sound when saying them out loud. Her words always sounded just as I imagined they would, fluting out from beneath her silky hair against my cheek, saying just exactly what it was that she saw.

Reading with my first kid

This is me reli mommy readingeading to my son when he was about 9 months old. I’ve loved this photo for years now without remembering what book it is we’re reading, but when I did remember, the moment was Proustian: I saw again his tiny fingers, awkwardly poised in their proto-attempts to “lift-the-flap,” the sketchily-bright illustrations of a circa-1998 library, complete with enormous computers and books with physical library cards, frequented by a Corduroy who was just bear-ly recognizable as the overall-clad teddy I remembered from my own childhood books. I felt again the blotches of settled sweat peculiar to those long mornings spent in pajamas and glasses, reading to, feeding, and changing my son. Most of all, I felt once again the anticipation of wondering, before each flap was lifted and each page was turned, which images–which words–might make his beautiful, serious little lips smile.

I still feel that anticipation when I read to my kids, even though my son is now seven and his sister-not even born when this picture was taken–is five. I can’t always tell what books they’ll love and what books they’ll hate, even though I consider myself to be at least a little bit of an expert on what makes a book good. My daughter, for instance, currently hates a book, for no clear reason that she’s willing or able to articulate, that appears perfectly charming to me–one authored, in fact, by Don Freeman, creator of Corduroy, the character who so captivated my son in the book pictured in this photo. My children regularly defy any “expert” opinions I might presume to have with their unshakable preferences and dislikes, and they’re constantly making me remember and re-imagine just what it is that makes reading the fun and fascinating addiction that it is.