“You were lucky to stay home with Ben, you know.” Indeed. With an only child I had the time – and a passion for books. Growing up with Golden books like “Pokey Little Puppy” and “Saggy Baggy Elephant,” I learned late the true magic of children’s literature.
Not that I’m a book snob. I loved Nancy Drew, and “A Wrinkle in Time” moved me to tears. In the third grade, Mrs. Ackley read “The Secret Garden” to tired, sweaty children back from lunch and always closed the book at an enormously good part despite our pleas for her to continue.
Years later, I would read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to students at Wales Elementary School to the same response. What is it? Non-fiction has its place – “Madame Curie” rocked – but I favored fantasy, and that’s what I chose to read with Ben. So, “Let the wild rumpus start.” (“Where the Wild Things Are.”)
First we began with his passion – trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, dump trucks. How many times did I read “Make Way for the Highway”? “Dirt coming down” were among Ben’s first words. Of course, we read the classics, “Goodnight, Moon” and “Very Hungry Caterpillar,” but we preferred to scout local libraries for giants, elves and fearsome beasts for our adventures.
Soon we sailed away in the pages of thick books from the “Chronicles of Prydain,” “Redwall” and the “Dark Is Rising” series. Animal characters’ personalities – heroes and villains – spilled over into stories about the stuffed critters who trundled around our own house.
Literacy wasn’t a concept for us. We held back tears when Leslie died in “Bridge to Terabithia.” We gasped when the brave mouse, Mathias, seemed to be losing the battle against Cluny the Scourge, leader of the rat horde. But mostly we laughed. Who wouldn’t? The “BFG” (Big Friendly Giant) added “whiz” to our household vocabulary to describe smelly bodily emissions. In “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” when the rambunctious Gladys, who plays the Angel of the Lord, with dirty sneakers peeking out from under her robe, bellows at the audience, “Hey! Unto you a child is born,” we could not stop laughing. Sharing books delighted both Ben and me.
Years passed. One night I started to read an adult book, “October Sky,” and laughed so hard at the rocket launch in the first chapter that Ben insisted, “I want to read that book.” I protested, “I’m reading it. It’s hilarious.” Ben would have none of that. “I think I should read it first.” And he did.
Things began to change when homework muscled time away from reading before bed. I would cajole or badger him to read a new book that I’d read and enjoyed. He would surrender to my pleas and later mutter, “Thanks for forcing me to read that, Mom. Do you have any other books by the same author?” Of course, he “yeowpped” Harry Potter on his own (a word from the picture book “Abiyoyo” meaning “to consume greedily.”) Then when Ben was about 10, technology intervened with its magnetic pull. Our reading aloud days came to an end with “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Not that Ben became immune to the magic of reading children’s books. In college he spent the second semester of his freshman year studying in London. During Easter break he planned to visit the isle of Lindisfarne in the North Sea. I knew he was feeling a bit low, so I mailed him a public library book to take with him. On a chilly April night in a cottage on the northeast coast of England, “Because of Winn-Dixie” cheered a lonely college student.