I’m sitting at our dining room table, invisible to the pair reading together in the living room. I’m imagining their fingers clutching the covers, and the tops of their heads, blond and brown, craned over the book they hold between their laps. E’s voice begins as a quiet, halting monotone, not confident enough for much inflection. J is silent, at first. I want to look, but I keep imagining instead: small spheres of bare shoulders, golden brown from the sun and summer dirt, stray locks of hair and shiny slivers of eyes just barely visible beneath thick brown lashes. Glitter-eyed Beanie Boos and slack-jawed Furbies cluster around and stare adoringly at these central figures, as if they were the saintly protagonists of a Renaissance painting who barely notice the awestruck gazes of the nameless cherubs and mortals who crowd the canvas’s edges. J interrupts, every once in awhile, to correct a word that E has misread, because she’s memorized this Halloween book. I wince, afraid for the confidence of my “emergent reader,” as our elementary school’s reading interventionist might refer to E–but with every eager interruption, his voice gets stronger and more expressive. I hear Dracula, and zombies, and the grunts of our long suffering couch beneath the excited wriggles of the reader and the listener who can’t keep quiet any longer. I hear dialogue that I know isn’t in the book, and all of a sudden I’m not listening to the book I remember–I’m hearing an improvised performance that I’d spoil by outing myself as its audience. They’ve become more than two saintly and solemn readers–they are themselves a book, their giggles and silly voices like so many lines of dense text, written in their sibling idiolect, unillustrated, with no explanatory footnotes, no marginal glosses.
E has long since emerged out of boring “just right for him” books and into the historical fictions of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales and the beautiful fantasies of the Amulet books–both graphic novel series. He recently told me that he prefers graphic novels to the pictureless chapter books I try, periodically, to foist upon him, because the images in a graphic novel leave no doubt in his mind as to how he should be imagining the story he’s reading. He insists that his imagination stay within the lines precisely drawn by the illustrators and authors he loves so much, and though I marvel, a little forlornly, at the thought of my seven-year-old’s strictly disciplined imagination, I see the holiness in it, too: he reveres the story, believes it exists powerfully enough to deserve the subjugation of his own fancy. And yet there on the couch, as he listens to J’s eager insistence that he get the words exactly right, I hear him reveling in getting it wrong–to make her smile and laugh so hard that I know, from the distinctive thud punctuating her giggles, that she’s fallen off the couch. This laughing heap of sister is a different sort of illustration than the intricate drawings that animate E’s mental stories when he reads–alone–his graphic novels. Her delighted screeches, the way the corners of her eyes squeeze together above the curve of her red smile when she laughs: these are lines that meander farther and less predictably than any line drawing, lines that are more than just a silent reassurance that he’s gotten it right. Together, as beatific and complex as any painted allegory, they illustrate the kind of unruly audience who makes performance, written or otherwise, such a tantalizing risk: they’re willing to believe in almost anything to feel the thrill of a story coming to life, and they couldn’t care less if it lines up with anyone else’s imagination.