easy reader
15 September 1999
The smell of musty library books. The crack of a new spine as I open it for the first time. Retreating to my bedroom after school, retreating to other worlds, lives not my own. Drifting off to sleep, still half in the world, dreaming the characters, dreaming myself into the book.

I want my son to have this joy. We started reading to him at, oh, three months? No, at three months, I recited Jabberwocky to him, with sound effects: "and the vorpal" <whoosh> "blade went snicker snack." <zzt> He lay on the bed, looking up at me with a mildly inquiring smile.

First real book: Miss Spider’s Tea Party, by David Kirk. The board book version. The illustrations are so rich, so vibrant, you want to reach out and touch the insect faces. So he did. But patient? Sit through a whole book? Ha, and ha again. Not until Laura, his sitter, started reading in a singsong voice:

One lonely spider wished to play
Two beetles gasped and ran away.
Three fireflies saw her web and fled
We won’t come in, the four bees said.

Books were good. Books were fun. Books were pretty pictures. Books were cuddle with mommy or daddy time.

We knew we’d won him over (at six months? seven? it blurs, already ancient past) when he extended a forefinger to touch the illustration.

Always the same page, too. In Jamberry, by Bruce Degen. I love that book. The words are sensual, playful:

Moonberry Starberry Cloudberry sky, Boomberry Zoomberry Rockets shoot by. A huge raspberry balloon with our intrepid heroes (a little boy and a bear) leaning out of the basket below, delighted at the fireworks explosions of strawberries and blueberries all around them. Damian would touch the bright magenta raspberry in the center of the picture, linger on the page. Maybe that’s why he now adores raspberries?

Still, he was faithful to his first love, he’d pick out Miss Spider from a stack of books. We’d read it, put it down, move on to another. He’d push the new one away, reach for Miss Spider again. But we moved on. A milestone, our first Dr. Seuss book: There’s a Wocket in my Pocket.

I started reciting books in my sleep. "Sometimes I am quite certain there’s a jertain in the curtain." (Dreams about a long fuzzy footed Seuss creature wrapped in a filmy curtain.) In the shower. "The nupboards in the cupboards, I do like them a lot." Out on a walk. "Strawberry ponies, strawberry lambs, dancing in meadows of strawberry jam...." When Damian caught me at it, he’d smile, giggle, out-and-out laugh. Funny mommy, reading a book that’s not even there.

It invaded our speech. Dante became a jertain after his propensity for trying to climb the study curtains. One day he snuck into a kitchen cabinet and Dan informed me we had a jertain who thought he was a nupboard. I laughed so hard I started tearing up.

Seuss again, The Foot Book. I started tracing the feet action -- well feet I did a little finger dance, sick feet I made my fingers droop, slow feet I traced the line of the dragging foot and said "slooooow feet" and then suddenly switched to a speedy voiced "quickfeet", zipping my finger across the page. Damian thought this was hysterical. Laughed literally every time I read that passage. And one day Laura read the book to him, sans sound or visual effects and he still laughed. Proof he remembered and still relished the joke.

By this time he was into turning pages. Fast. We started speed reading, skipping sentences, paraphrasing wildly. For a while he was more interested in the mechanics of reading than the content. Still, he’d stop on the oddest pages, captivated for a moment. Sometimes dip his head to kiss the cat or mustache or strawberry pictured.

Now he sits quietly snuggled in his Daddy’s arms and has bedtime stories -- ten or twenty or forty of them (quick reads) and looks intently at the pictures while listening. Reads (well, looks at pictures) on his own, too.

He prefers stories to just random "this is a boa and boas say sssss!" sorts of books. And some of the books are such fun. Sheep in a Jeep, by Nancy Shaw (illus. Margot Apple):

Beep! Beep! Sheep in a jeep on a hill that’s steep.
Uh-oh! The jeep won’t go.
Sheep leap to push the jeep.
Sheep shove. Sheep grunt. Sheep don’t think to look up front.
Jeep goes splash! Jeep goes thud! Jeep goes deep in goey mud.

Accompanied by colored pencil sketches of silly sheep piling in and flying out of their red jeep. Damian laughs at the silly faces the sheep make as they struggle. He likes the sheep series. So do we.

Sometimes the words are poetry: Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear?, by Nancy White Carlstrom (illustrated by Bruce Degen of Jamberry fame -- the man likes his bears):

I’ll wear my pants
My pants that dance
My pants that dance in the morning.

I’ll wear a rose
Between my toes
A rose in my toes in the morning

But the illustrations in this one drive me batty. We follow a boy bear through his day as he wears clothes, sun, sand, food, bath suds -- that part is fine. But Mama Bear is fat and matronly, with an omnipresent apron around her wide tum. And Daddy Bear comes home from work wearing a pinstripe suit, then sits and reads the paper while Mama cooks and takes care of Jesse. Oddly old fashioned and more than a little irritating. At least they both tuck him into bed and I can’t resist the final:

Sleep in my eyes
And stars in the skies
Moon on my bed
And dreams in my head
That’s what I’ll wear tonight.

Children’s books tend to perpetrate this notion that Mom is all important. Dad? Well, he’s good for fun and games. So when Dan reads I Love You As Much (by Laura Krauss Melmed, illustrated by Henri Sorensen), he substitutes "father" for "mother" : Said the father horse to his child, "I love you as much as a warm summer breeze"; Said the father bear to his child, "I love you as much as the forest has trees." Funny thing -- even though I was the one who pointed out the mamacentric language, it sounded odd to my ears the first few times he read it that way. As if somehow moms have the monopoly on baby love. Even though I know it isn’t so, I think it’s how my ears are attuned. All the more reason to change the words, tilt the meaning, keep Dad in the thick of childcare and child love, keep Mom’s options open -- no apron for me!

Some interesting echoes in the books, too -- a lot of them deal with losing parents or -- in The Runaway Rabbit (by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. Clement Hurd) -- trying desperately to ditch the parent (mom, of course). When I first read Runaway Rabbit, I was grossed out by the stalker mom:

"If you run after me," said the little bunny, "I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you."

"If you become a fish in a trout stream," said his mother, "I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you."

And on like that. This poor kid can’t get away! Smother mother. But then I realized that for a little kid, the pull to go is strong but the fear of going is strong too, a push-me pull-you ambivalence, caught on the edge of independence and clinging close. And a book that says Mommy will find you anywhere, Mommy will always be there," this is what they need to hear.

So many children’s books have this dichotomy, this need for adventure and then need to be home, safe and warm. Max in Where the Wild Things Are (by the ineffable Maurice Sendak) goes off to be wild with the wild things but eventually Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. That’s us. Parents. Home base. With supper still hot after a voyage in and out of days. We’re in the books, all the books. Even if we’re disguised as a bear mom with an apron or a rabbit mom who turns into a gardener and a tightrope walker and the wind.

Dan reads Damian an old favorite of mine, Harold and the Purple Crayon (by Crockett Johnson) and I listen too and get lost in the imaginings of my childhood, when I had a purple crayon too and I could draw whatever wondrous things I could conjure, flying horses and deep forests and always come back home by drawing a window around my bed. I wish I had a purple crayon now.

Some books are like that, familiar and homey and suddenly I’m four years old again, snuggling up to hear the story. Some are brand new and the language surprises and amazes.

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