Library

Our public library has always offered us relief. On the days that crawled, or seemed likely to stall out altogether and strand us in a perpetual wasteland of 3 PM, the library was there. When E and J were still small enough to ride through the library’s double glass doors in our rickety double stroller; when we were all longing to see something other than the same lopsided piles of toys or socks or mail littering the same familiar rooms, the library was there.  Here was the broad, octagonal fish tank that rose taller than my head, home to the reclusive snowflake eel that J delights in spotting amidst the tangles of coral and fake plants, the chess set with a board as big as a kitchen floor and toddler-sized queens and pawns, the tables piled up with felted puppets, or meticulously knitted families of forest animals, or wooden building blocks, and most of all–of course–here were the books. We would stuff as many as we could underneath the stroller’s seats, eager to revitalize our familiar home reading nooks with unknown characters and uncracked jokes.

When I walked into the library a week or so ago, long past the days of double strolling and endless days at home, I was alone. I was on my way home from work, walking against the cold wind, with tiny snow pellets pelting my cheeks. I was tired, and I felt sick, but mostly at heart. My country now had a president who spoke and acted like a volatile child. In the mornings, when I would hear his boasts and tantrums barking through the measured NPR voices on the radio, I’d find myself thinking of the kind of kid voice that stands out in strident, whiny relief from the playground’s usual soundtrack of friendly chatter and giggles–the kind of voice that puts you on guard immediately. This is the voice you fear might goad your kids into being the cruel and selfish opposites of the caring and generous people you’ve been trying to help them become since they were born. This is the voice you’re glad you can whisk your children away from, and explain to them what could be driving the person who owns it to act the way they do. You hear pain and anxiety in this voice, and you feel sorry for its owner. This is the voice you believe will, in time, modulate in deference to the feelings of others, and learn to speak kindly. And this is the difference, of course, between a child’s voice and the current president’s. It’s admirable, and not that hard, to be patiently optimistic about the voice of a child who is seeking attention, or approval, or just testing the boundaries of their little play community. It’s far more difficult and dangerous to feel this way about a powerful man of seventy whose childish rants produce consequences far beyond anything the playground crowd could imagine.

And yet they do try to imagine: every night, E asks me what Donald Trump did today. When I stepped out of the cold and into the bright, warm library, coming face to face with the familiar shelf of new arrivals in the children’s section, I felt the dull ache of his question in my stomach. Help me, old friend, I wanted to say. Please help me, Library. Give me some sharp answers to different questions–about what the righteous and loving people of our country did yesterday, and the day before that; what they’ll do tomorrow and the next day and forever after. Give me answers of terrible beauty to tower over the answers I feel compelled to give my son every night, because I believe in honoring his relentless curiosity, and I believe in his right to think and respond to the real world around him. But I’m relying on you, Library, to make sure these ominous answers I have to give aren’t the last words of our day. Give us last words to soothe our anxieties, to swaddle the realities we face with armor, bright and hard as any fact, as we fall asleep.

I left the library with Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, and the latest installment of Princeless, a series of comic-books-turned-graphic-novels about an all-female crew of pirates determined to reclaim the throne stolen from their captain by her power-hungry, misogynist brothers. These books are full of women who resist the boyish playground voices that insist they can’t lead or can’t think, those voices that declare they can’t play with the boys who’ve appropriated the universities and labs and pirate ships that these women know they have every right to dominate. These women resist, perpetually and resourcefully. They give my children a million ways to answer the question not of what Trump did today but of what we, too, can do to resist. E and J have yet to ask this question, but the library anticipates it. Thank you, Library. Thank you for silently stretching out your shelves to meet us at the door, and offering us your strong and honorable answers.

Kids Reading Without Me

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.

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Reading together

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.

Touching books

Nearly every night, J helps herself fall asleep by poring over one of the books crammed onto her bedside table shelves. I remember E taking books to his bed as a very young child as well, his little body surrounded by hard glossy covers and bent paperbacks, sleeping as intimately with his books as he did with his plush “special friends.” Touching books matters to them both: when I pause for too long, sometimes distracted and sometimes reading ahead to myself, E will tap peremptorily on the book, as if to say, “here! In front of us! Get back to it!” J does more than tap: she smacks and punches and claws at the illustrations that deserve it. In Anne Isaac’s inventive, modern tall-tale, The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch, a band of evil, California Gold Rush-era ghost-miners captures protagonist Estrella’s beloved pets and enslaves them to exploit their supernatural abilities. Every time we reach this moment in the story, J, lover of all animals, unleashes her righteous fury by slapping and punching Dan Santat’s over-sized illustrations of the pet-snatching, ghostly miners. I often feel myself on the verge of telling her that “we don’t hit,” but I never do. We don’t hit people, it’s true, but books aren’t people.

We recently moved into a new house, one with space to finally shelve the books that have stayed packed in boxes for the past seven years. Unpacking them felt like the kind of joyful relief I imagine you’d feel if you suddenly stumbled into a party where all of your old friends who used to be so much fun were waiting around, eternally patient and still amazingly fun, for you to show up. Santat’s ghostly miners remain just as they are beneath the force of J’s angry fists, and my books were much the same. I had willed them away from me, stuffed them into smelly cardboard boxes for seven years, and nothing on their wordy faces shows anything of the strain. The face of a friend would surely show something, had I pushed them away, refused to see them or even acknowledge them for seven years–but books don’t care.

And I don’t care that J hits those glossy, evil ghost-miners. In fact–I find it a little thrilling. I get to watch her gleefully transgress a limit between our bodies and our books that I don’t cross anymore, the limit insisting that the people of our books aren’t real enough to deserve the kind of touches we reserve for lovers or enemies. J is old enough to know that Santat’s miners aren’t real, but something in her doesn’t care enough to restrain her violent caresses, and something in me cares too much about books to make her.

Now she comes home from kindergarten and delivers earnest lectures on how to care for books: never hold them by the cover alone, letting the rest flop free, and never, EVER, bend the corners of the pages to mark your spot. It makes me a little sad: maybe she’s finished crossing that line of bodily intimacy with her books, and she’ll now be content with just opening and closing, and turning pages. But then she tells us that “tape is like band-aids for books,” and informs us of her plan to become a “healer” of books–and plants and animals–when she grows up. She knows that books aren’t alive, like our leggy geraniums, or the bugs she longs to keep “warm and cozy” in our house, but she clearly sees them as equally deserving of her tender care. I’m relieved: they’re still in each others’ clutches.

Mature Themes

J and I happened upon Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece at the library the other day, which I’d never read. Cracking it open with her felt like a bit of a crapshoot: would we get zany comedy (Where The Sidewalk Ends) or a disturbing, pseudo-love story (The Giving Tree)? Tree_stump1_30u06Who knew?? But reading is a tantalizing risk I love watching my kids take: at the library, unlike any other place we ever go, they get to pick whatever and however much they want and take it home with them. It’s a thrill for all of us–and recently, I was delighted to hear of research from education scholars Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith that shows what an edifying thrill this kind of unbridled pleasure-reading can be. So: we gave The Missing Piece a shot. It’s a fable–stylistically similar to The Giving Tree and only slightly less unsettling in what it suggests about love and heterosexual gender relations. If you read the rolling “circle guy,” as J dubbed him, as a hetero guy, then what you get is a dude who dabbles in serial monogamy, then ultimately rejects the idea altogether because it’s incompatible with his roving, rambling lifestyle and his overwhelming need to express himself. Circle Guy looks like a pie with a missing slice, and he’s searching for a sharp, slender little piece to complete him–someone who, in doing so, becomes indistinguishable from the whole they become together, or, in one particularly disturbing image, ends up shattered beneath the weight of Circle Guy’s crushing affection.

The Missing Piece does offer a few nods toward healthier relationships: one piece rejects Circle Guy because she wants to be her own piece, and the piece with whom he has the most successful relationship asserts that she “can be someone’s and still be my own.” The Missing Piece isn’t quite as bad as The Giving Tree, but both deliver the same dismal message about love: it  depletes and diminishes you, stealing what’s essential, whether it’s your limbs or your voice. The boy and the apple tree in The Giving Tree live by this model, and though Circle Guy opts out of it, both texts are fables bearing a message about how things are–for adults. These are the sorts of fables that annoy me when it becomes clear to me that I’m reading such a book to my kids. I am not at all against fables in a general sense: I relish reading my children versions of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example, because both E and J are such lusty criers of wolf about illness and injury: the message here is one they’re actively trying to understand and internalize in their everyday lives. The_Boy_Who_Cried_Wolf_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994And I’m not opposed to reading with my kids about unsolved problems or complicated ideas that still stymie adults: among my favorites to read with them are Tony Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby and Lynda Barry’s Picture This, both amazing comics/graphic novel hybrids and both about what it means to represent the world around you, in words or images or both. This is common ground for my kids and I, and I like to read with them about what treading it feels like. When I’m struggling to compose just the right final sentence, I think of J and her frustrated tears when she can’t get the weirdly bony head of the Pokemon character she’s drawing to look exactly like the image she’s haltingly copying from my phone, and when I feel the nagging pull of revisions to be made and new ideas to be jotted down, I think of the delighted hours E spent composing, revising, and illustrating his “how-to” book about how to draw a Furby. We are all driven to try and capture these bits of our world that strike us, that we can’t stop talking about–whether it’s books or Pokemon or Furbies.

Maybe the problem with The Missing Piece and its ilk is the lack of common ground: the territory of the story’s big ideas is foreign to children. It’s a fable about an angsty adult concern, not a lesson that kids are trying to learn or a problem they’re discovering. Depending on your perspective, the “moral” of The Missing Piece is either a charming version of bumper stickers about how not all who wander are lost, or an ultimately sexist assertion of what a drag it is to be attached when what really matters is the sound of your own voice: at the end of it all, Circle Guy learns that he was much happier while he was searching for his piece than he was after he’d actually found her, mostly because he can no longer sing with his mouth full of his missing piece. I have to admit: the more I write and think about this book, the worse it seems. Circle Guy is like a cheery, singing version of the tortured male artist who lives for his genius alone, unable to nurture anything but his own creative spark. But he still wants a piece.

The book’s other message, about what the book jacket calls “the nature of quest and fulfillment,” is far more palatable, even appealing, to me–but it’s still a message for me, not my kids.  Appreciating the present moment, valuing the quest rather than the end goal, privileging process over product: these are ideas that I consciously try and fail and try again to embrace. I struggle against these ideas when I feel the occasional, sudden urge to sign E and J up for some new activity, some new intellectual pursuit– “the one,” perhaps, that will complete them, and make them rich enough someday to let their preferences run wild in places far more expensive than the library. I struggle against them when I insist that J pry her little eyes away from the anthill she’s watching, or when I invert the tired cliche about stopping to smell the roses by insisting that she actually stop smelling a flower, so that we can arrive, at some point, at whatever destination we’re heading for. But these struggles to get there, to find it, to reach the end–these are my struggles, not my kids’. My kids don’t need to learn how to slow down and appreciate the journey, and, thankfully, they aren’t currently looking for anyone to complete them.

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Stopping to sketch the flowers.

Their interests aren’t dormant, waiting to be woken up and nurtured by the perfect summer camp, and these interests are hardly docile enough to be easily corralled onto a well-marked path toward “success.” They unfold with a roving promiscuity that defies the interventions of me or any fable I might read to them. When E spends hours making cubes and cats and fortune tellers and ninja stars out of paper, intricately decorated, or when J proudly shows off her calluses from swinging herself across the monkey bars, I delight in seeing this physical evidence of time well spent, material yet poignantly ephemeral: paper cats get recycled or left out in the rain, and calluses will disappear in the face of kindergarten’s looming letters and numbers.

Reading fables to kids that warn them about adult problems feels a little like Sesame Street gone wrong: there’s something for adults and something for kids, but what really drives the story is for the adults, and none of it is very funny for anyone. J did laugh at the end of The Missing Piece, but it was the same laugh I’ve heard at other times when her relentless, sunny exuberance confronts the absurd and the puzzling. What is with this strange Circle Guy, her bubbly giggle and scrunched up eyes seemed to say. If I were to put my adult words into her  laughing little mouth to explain her puzzlement, I would have her ask: how could anyone be such a stranger to their own desire? Who would roll over the same mistaken-ridden territory again and again, only to return to where he began and begin again? I’ll tell you who, J: adults. Not you–at least, not yet.

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Sunny exuberance.

Dead Bugs

 

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Maria Sibylla Merian, Illuminated Copper Engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLVIII. 1705.

When E was a toddler, I held my breath and shielded his eyes from any hint of death that slunk into our lives. If I saw a dead bird or squirrel on the sidewalk, I crossed the street immediately, shoving the stroller onto the grassy extension and down the curb.  I glossed over it in the few books we had that mentioned it, surreptitiously gathering the pages where I knew it lived between the fingers of my right hand as I turned the page. Then one afternoon E turned his silent attention toward a motionless fly on the bathroom floor, and I thought: this is it. We stared at the fly together in the dim bathroom, just barely illuminated by the weak sunlight on the tile. E asked why it wasn’t moving, and I told him that I thought it was dead. “Dead?” he questioned–and I explained that his little fly body had stopped working and would never work again. But I was wrong: the fly buzzed suddenly and flew away, saving me from further explanation.

The first literary mention of death that I didn’t gloss over when reading to E was in William Joyce’s The Leaf Men, a book about an ailing grandmother and her beloved garden, both of whom escape death with the help of a brave troop of “doodle bugs,” better known in our house as roly-polies, bugs that delight J and that have been the first dead things that she’s ever seen. Joyce’s book is about littleness in the face of death: the doodle bugs, “tiny of body, but brave of heart,” and the Long-Lost Toy, a “little metal man,” fight against the grandmother’s demise and the murderous intentions of the Spider Queen. The doodle bugs succeed in summoning the Leaf Men, those “gardeners of a grand and elfin sort,” who restore the garden and return the Long-Lost Toy to the grandmother, who wakes, herself restored, the next morning. But just before the Leaf Men arrive, the evil Spider Queen attacks the roly-polies. She is quickly dispatched by the Leaf Men, “shot…through the heart” with an arrow made of thistle. It is a startlingly violent moment in a book that’s otherwise quite gentle–and it was the first death that E heard me read out loud.

Bugs have given my kids–and many other kids, I’d guess–their first glimpses of death. And though the insect murder in The Leaf Men is stark, its satisfying violence replaces the far more expected and terrible death that the book stops short of depicting: that of the grandmother. The Spider Queen is the worst kind of death personified: unmoved by faith, goodness, or logic, and selfishly ravenous. She “sneers” that “The Leaf Men are not real,” and she kills both for sport and satiety: just before her murder, the narrator remarks that  “doodle bug bowling was just what the Spider Queen hungered for.” No explanation is given for her hatred of the Long-Lost Toy or the doodle bugs; she kills without rhyme or reason. Reading the scene of this malevolent arachnid’s murder to E felt acceptable, even necessary. Maybe speaking the words felt like vanquishing the version of death that I feared would grow ever more monstrous in his imagination, each time he encountered a dead fly, or squirrel, or bird, or–one day–a dead person he loved. I love The Leaf Men because it saved us both from the literary experience of such a death: the grandmother’s survival at the end of the book, like our fly’s bathroom floor resurrection, was a huge relief. But I love the book more because the experience of real death isn’t wholly absent from its pages. The grandmother is old, and frail, and if E read this book now, I’m sure he would predict her death, just as I did when I first read it. The grandmother may be saved by utterly fantastic means, but the possibility of her death is nevertheless faced, and it’s faced by the smallest of the small–by those who seem, as E once did to me, as though they’d be the least likely to comprehend the awfulness of death. The doodle bugs, encouraged by the Long-Lost Toy, believe that the Leaf Men will save their beloved garden and its gardener, just as so many of us believe our beloved dead will be saved, somehow, by a being hardly less fantastic than the Leaf Men. The roly-polies have faith, and it gives them strength.

Yet the grandmother is also saved by the Long-Lost Toy: delivering him into the grandmother’s sleeping hand is the final act of the Leaf Men. “My little metal man!” she exclaims upon waking, “I’d almost forgotten you!” But she remembers him, as a gift from her father to “watch over” her, and she heals. The Long-Lost Toy is a material token of the old lady’s past, and most especially, of a person who loved her deeply and died. He carries a valuable memory when its owner loses sight of it, temporarily, and he inspires others to have faith, to act, to save.

The Long-Lost Toy is a little metal sign of all the memories that get lodged in the cracks of our lives after the people and things they signify are gone, and of how wonderfully overwhelming these memories can be when something shakes them loose. We have a dear neighbor who has known our children since we moved to this neighborhood, when I was pregnant with J, and now he is dying. A list of every whimsical trinket he’s ever given my children would fill many pages. I could never remember each one, but I count on their hidden existence in our home, ready to jog the memory in E’s mind of looking out our front window some Saturday morning and seeing a surprise batch of garage sale toys waiting for him and J on the porch, carefully chosen by our neighbor, with their distinct interests and preferences in mind.

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J’s Golden Scissors: whimsical trinket extraordinaire 

I count on these objects, because E wants nothing to do with processing this real life death right now: when we told him what was going on, finally, he immediately started waving his hands and said “Stop! Stop telling me about this! I don’t want to talk about this anymore! I don’t want to think about it anymore!” J asked if we would still be able to visit his house after he was gone, her thoughts already searching, perhaps, in the most likely place for traces of the man whose rambling stories lulled her to sleep when she was an infant and who delighted in hoisting her up onto a cinder block to show her the colonies of roly-polies wriggling around in his massive compost bins.

When I read to E about the Spider Queen’s death, he was probably not much more than two. Since then he’s heard about many literary deaths, and seen countless dead bugs, birds, and squirrels. Most recently, we read together about the death of Jack, the beloved brindled bulldog who trots faithfully beneath the Ingalls family wagon across the prairies of the Little House series. In the opening chapters of the fourth book, By The Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies, and in doing so, becomes the book’s first and saddest symbol of its pervasive motif: growing up means inevitable loss. Jack is everything the Spider Queen is not: utterly faithful, loving, and innocent, and the chapter that details his death is as detailed and anguished as the scene of the Spider Queen’s death is spare and satisfying. Wilder’s narrator dwells on the signs of physical pain and age that Laura sees in Jack’s body, and on the regrets she feels about neglecting him in the last few years of his life. The discovery of his stiff body, his burial, and the emptiness Laura feels after he is really gone–E and I were spared none of these things as we read. I marveled at each grim new detail, surprised but grateful to find such sadness frankly described: E would watch his Laura bear this sadness, and survive. We read this chapter during our usual reading time before school, after everyone is dressed, lunches are packed, and it’s only us, waiting to walk to school. On this morning, after the initial flurry of shoe-putting-on and last minute additions to his backpack, he stopped just before the door, his eyes cast down and his delicate fingers picking at the fabric of the sofa. I asked him what was wrong, though I knew, and he said, “Jack.”

“I know.” I said. “It’s really sad.” He agreed, and we walked out the door together and into the sunshine.

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Bug observers.

Big Dumb Dad

J and E’s dad fell off our porch roof this past weekend while attempting to retrieve a frisbee. He was OK, except for some scrapes and bruises, and, most notably, a nasty cut on his pinky finger that he’d gotten as he crashed his way down the rotten wooden trellis he’d climbed to reach the roof. I didn’t see it happen, and I think he would have kept the whole incident from me if he could have, but the broken trellis and bloody finger wouldn’t let him. He seemed a little embarrassed and angry at himself, texting us from urgent care that he felt like a “big dumb dad.” I knew just what kind of dad he meant: inept and arrogant, and deeply invested in his masculine prowess. I knew that the father of my children was nothing like this well-worn caricature, at this or any other moment of his tenure as “dad.” S has mashed avocados to the perfect consistency for toothless mouths and strapped babies to his chest while he shops for diaper cream and applesauce. He wears plush unicorn slippers with shiny gold horns to match his daughter’s light-up pink ones, and he relishes the role of the “cowardly” one, as he calls it, in the pretend quests and battles he enacts with E and J. He’s a dad who contains multitudes.

But big dumb dads are everywhere in the media that surrounds us, from the the video-game playing, beer-drinking ignoramuses who are mystified by the puzzle of diapering a baby, to the cringeworthy, clueless, and supremely confident dads on TV sitcoms. I’d argue that even a few of children’s literature’s best-beloved dads could qualify. When S fell off the roof, he wasn’t acting like these dads, but somehow, he felt like he was. He wasn’t, for example, acting like Papa Berenstain of Berenstain Bears renown: in The Berenstain Bears Go To the Doctor, Papa insists, through sneezes and coughs and fevers, that he is perfectly well, until he is proven wrong by the cubs’ pediatrician. In The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Honey, Papa blunders through town, wreaking havoc in expensive shops and his own mother’s backyard, searching for a thief who turns out to have been none other than a sleepwalking Papa himself. In both of these books, the mother figures know best: it’s the cubs’ capable and brusque female pediatrician who proves Papa’s illness with her masterful diagnostic eye and her thermometer, and it’s Mama who tells everyone how to solve the mystery within the first few pages of the book. Papa doesn’t listen, of course, but Mama is proven right in the end. I’ve even started to see a kind of proto-big-dumb-dad in Pa Ingalls of the Little House series, which E and I are reading right now. The Little House books are nothing if not a testament to this pioneer dad’s consummate skill in all things farm and forest, but they also show him, time and again, making bad choices about which farms and which forests his family should settle in–and always with the utmost confidence that this time–this place–will be just perfect.

I know how important it is for young readers to encounter fictional characters who both reflect and counter their own identities and experiences, whether in terms of race, gender, or class. I’m always glad to see this issue getting at least some of the attention it deserves–though it could certainly use more. But S’s brief moment as a big dumb dad in his own mind emphasizes how important it is for kids to see a different kind of diversity in their books as well, one that’s about not only race or gender or class, but also about who they are in the context of their own families. They need to know just how many different ways there are to be a father, a mother, a sister, or a brother.  We try to expose our kids to books that show and celebrate just how many loving and worthy ways there are to play all of these roles, yet despite our best efforts, the big dumb dad managed to bumble his way into our non-fiction family drama this past weekend. Luckily, his appearance was little more than a cameo: S is smart and self-aware; he knows he’s not really a big dumb dad, and he knows why. But as I heard S muttering about his big dumb dadness, it struck me how much more difficult it must be for a child to keep hold of this kind of self-awareness–for a child to even develop this awareness, when he’s faced with so many representations that insist he’s nothing more than a sports-loving, inarticulate little terror–or that she’s nothing more than a glitter-loving little princess. When E reads books that feature big brothers who seem able to do nothing but either torment or protect their little sisters, or when he mulls over Papa Berenstain’s antics, what does he think? Does he see himself? I certainly hope not–and I’m pretty confident that having a real life smart dad is far more influential than any of the dumber ideas of “dad” that he encounters in books and shows.

But S was frustrated and embarrassed when he fell off the roof, and it was in this moment that he became a big dumb dad in his own eyes: when he was vulnerable, mad at himself, and flummoxed at what had happened. And that moment reminds me of E’s stricken face when he sees his sister’s angry tears, provoked by one too many of his insistently earnest explanations of just how wrong she is about the planets, or the length of a week, or the stem of a dandelion. At times like these, when E feels vulnerable, mad at himself, and even more flummoxed than an adult would be at such an emotional turn of events, does he feel like the moronic, tormenting older brothers that stalk his books and shows? I would hate to think so, particularly because it’s at moments like these that I so often reach for a book to read to my kids, to calm them down and distract them–if only for a little while–from the difficult work of being brother and sister and learning how to love each other better. It’s work that only gets more complicated as they get older, and they need all the help they can get from their books.

We try to find books that will help them: in Mary Leary’s Karate Girl, for example, it’s the big sister who takes up karate to protect her little brother from bullies–though both siblings ultimately learn that the true value of karate lies in confidence, not clobbering. In the Magic Treehouse series, brother Jack and sister Annie are a team, and it’s often Annie who’s more intrepid than her brother. Even Papa Berenstain himself is sometimes the kind of dad who’s more smart than dumb, bigger in heart and mind than in muscles or ego: in some books, he shares stories about how he, too, used to be afraid of the dark; sometimes he even solves domestic problems with a cooler head and more resourceful thinking than the ever-capable Mama Bear.

Papa Bear, who seems like such a blowhard in some Berenstain Bears books, has other dimensions, other possibilities: if we read each book in the series about his family’s life as varying representations of the same character, then we start to see something more than a big dumb dad. We start to see something more like a real live smart dad we might admire–one whose expansive dadness can’t be contained by a limited stereotype.  In Siblings Without Rivalry, authors and parenting coaches Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish urge parents to resist casting their kids into familial roles, like victim or bully, problem child, or peacemaker. It makes sense: being pigeonholed into such roles tells kids things about who they are that can’t possibly be true. Kids, after all, are still growing and developing, still working hard to get to know themselves and their families.  Maybe S was being a little bit–just a little bit–like a big dumb dad when he tried to get that frisbee off the roof. But this moment was only one of the many and varied moments in his life as a dad, the vast majority of which are smart, loving, and responsible–I could hardly believe what had happened when S told me. He still surprises us, and he inspires us to stay on the hunt for literary dads who have at least some measure of his wonderful variety.

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.