goodnight socks
29 August 2000
Early this morning -- dreadfully early -- like five a.m. -- my child was up and about. God knows why. I lay in bed trying to ignore the scampering and exclaiming noises from various parts of the house. But when the noise turned to a cry I was out of bed in a flash. He stood there, pointing to his feet and looking pitiful. "Cold." Oh lordie. As I was slipping socks on his small feet, he said "goodnight socks."

He was quoting his favorite book, Goodnight Moon. The kid’s a bookworm. Age two plus four months and he’s hooked on books. Monday I had a lot planned -- baking bread, sending off the last batch of query letters, writing an entry, maybe even writing a script, who knows? But then Jami cancelled. No sitter. What’s a mom to do?

Didn’t matter. Damian’s got books, he’s got cars, he’s got trains. He’s a happy chap. I felt like a neglectful mom, but I console myself that he knows how to get my attention. And when he tries, I’m right there. Pronto.

How does he try, you ask? Well, sometimes he takes my hand and leads me where he wants. To fix his Brio train track or to turn on the TV (he tries to put the video cassette box in the VCR and points the remote at the TV -- he’s got the basic idea) or to race his cars on the uneven line of stacking boxes in the living room. But just as often he brings a book over and hands it to me, expecting -- rightly -- that I’ll read said book. Sometimes five times. Consecutively. I get to the last page and put the book down. He picks it up and hands it right back to me.

He’s memorizing, you see. I’ve seen him sitting on the floor, surrounded by books, intent on a page. And saying the words aloud. The exact words. The words that belong on that page. And sometimes he’ll skip ahead of me when I’m reading. I’ll turn the page and before I can get the words out, he’s already saying "a nink in the sink" (from Dr. Seuss’ A Wocket in My Pocket) or "you can go on a Zike Bike" (from Seuss’ Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now).

But it’s not confined to actual reading sessions. He recites from book all the time, endless chatter replaying the stories in his head. As I sit here writing this, he’s on the floor pushing a toy train across the floor, saying "oh dear, cried..." and then he trails off, presumably having forgotten the rest of the quote. No, I have no idea what he’s quoting. Last night I took him out of his carseat and heard him saying, "to the bull fights in Madrid" something something "bumblebee!" (from The Story of Ferdinand). As I said, his absolute favorite book is Goodnight Moon, he’ll quote from that endlessly. Goodnight light and the red balloon. Goodnight bears, goodnight chairs. Goodnight toy house, goodnight mouse. In the middle of a dinner table conversation, Damian interjects, "an’ a cow jum-ping ohver da moon." Still not sure how it was relevant to the changes I’m planning to make to my food script, but he may be right. Maybe the climax does need a cow. A moon, at least.

The other day at the library, he started reciting Miss Spider’s New Car. From the beginning, straight through: "We need a car, just yours and mine." So I repeated him and he giggled and went on, "it mustn’t screech or growl or whine." And on like that. Not exactly a dialogue, and yet... a dialogue.

So does this qualify as mastering language skills, or simply memory skills? He’s more than a parrot, he understands what we read (aided, of course, by the all important pictorial adjunct). But it’s not like he’s coming up with this stuff on his own, he’s just quoting other people’s words. So it doesn’t count, right?

The line gets fuzzy. Like the socks trigger I first mentioned. Last night’s trigger was a comb on my nightstand. Damian picked it up and examined it up close. Any closer and he’d need a microscope. I told him it was a comb and started to comb his hair. He liked that. Took it from me and started combing his own hair. Then put it on top of his head and let it fall off, clunk, onto the bed. Combs were fun. Combs reminded him of something. I heard him saying under his breath, "comb comb comb comb" and knew what was coming next. Sure enough, "blue hair is fun to brush and comb." (Seuss’ One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish). But he was really commenting on the act of combing, something he’s still not used to with his babyfine hair. He was finding a context for it. The first thing that came to mind? A book snippet.

He does this all the time. We took a book out of the library a couple of months ago: The Cat Sat on the Mat, in which said cat sits on all sorts of perches around the house, including the newspaper (gee, doesn’t sound like any cat I know), the piano, a pile of clothes, and of course, a mat. Cute book. Damian loved it. Quoted from it constantly. So when he contemplated our dining table, he pointed it out by saying "the cat sat onna tayboo" and so on. It taught him to identify things around the house, but I was never sure if he was imagining a cat on the table/piano/bed or if he simply felt it sounded right with a "cat sat" in front of it. But books definitely help him understand daily life.

Or is it the other way around? Maybe things in books don’t quite make sense until he sees them play out in life. Last week it was disgustingly hot, and humid to boot. I felt cheated of my dry California summer. Damian and I went for our inevitable walk around the block anyway. Small child must run. Must burn off energy. Must keep moving or he’ll combust. Except when he stops because his hands are filthy and the tarry still-damp asphalt won’t rub off on his shirt. I cleaned his hands with a wipe or two, then said, "okay, you can run now." He ran off ahead of me with glee, reciting "run for fun in the hot hot sun!" (From One Fish Two Fish.)

Maybe it goes both ways. He sees an artichoke in a book and then sees it in the fridge, makes the connection. This is that. And then back to the book, this I saw, this I held in my two hands. Now I see the drawing differently, now it comes alive on the page. Thus the endless fascination, going back over the same pages with ever newer understanding.

My favorite book quote, though, has to be when he banged his head on the crib rail. Cried out but in anger and fright as much as pain. Said, emphatically, "go ‘way nightmaya!" (go away nightmare, from There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer). He may not know exactly what a nightmare is yet, but he’s found a mighty useful cure-all for what frets him.

He’s already discovered the magical power of the written word and he’s only two years old.

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