Back when my older two sons were smaller, we tried hard to steer them toward “good” books (and “good” everything else, for that matter). While occasionally a Disney treatment of a classic story would wander into the house, for the most part, we controlled the books. One year, early in our eldest’s independent reading career, my brother-in-law brought Ezekiel some Captain Underpants books. Knowing they’d driven some friends crazy when their kids were reading them, we quietly hid them and eventually “disappeared” them.
Ezekiel raced through books—seemingly devoured them a stack at a time, like a champion pancake eater—from the Wizard of Oz series (in case you ever wondered, there are fourteen volumes) to the Magic Treehouse oeuvre, all those Nate the Great adventures, and on and on. He was—well, he is—a reader. His next-in-line brother, Lucien, came to his ardor for reading more slowly and they often like different things (for example, Lucien’s into biographies while Ezekiel favors fantasy). Other than those Captain Underpants books, I don’t remember ever discouraging a book (save for our general reluctance to read the very small kids Spot books, because we get bored doing so, as we would say, there was a magic to Spot all children loved and all parents abhorred). I do remember the moment (I wrote about it in an essay up at mamazine), if not the book title, when I first noticed Ezekiel reading something I had never seen before. I felt a little left behind, for other ideas and worlds. I also felt awed, because reading is such an important way that kids garner independence. It was like watching him soar off to new places, and I felt, I think, proud, as much as anything else.
In retrospect, all that worry over the right books and the extremely limited screen exposure (although I do feel that was great in oh so many ways) and the orange cheese on cheese puffs seems slightly misplaced. While for some kids (and indeed, you can’t know which ones they are), things like television or computer games, red dye number-the-most-bad-kind or maybe even Captain Underpants or Twilight are a bad idea, for many kids they are not a huge deal—and it’s possible (my friend Jane is adamant on this point in regards to junk food) that forbidding things and the related struggles over doing so are worse than just letting all things occur and aiming for eventual, self-regulated moderation. After all, we do live in a world of Twilight, Danielle Steele, reality television, text messages and cheese puffs, along with all else.
This story sticks with me: our neighbor, Lou, a Mario Brothers addict as a child (and a pretty driven, serious teenager these days) became interested in tennis—the sport—from playing “tennis” on his hand-held game machine. He plays competitively—and well. Another neighbor, now in college, realized while watching Japanese anime that she was picking up the language. So, she lobbied to enroll in college Japanese courses (there were none at the high school) when she was a freshman in high school and she completed four years of college Japanese by the time she started college.
That is to say, maybe there are no bad books. Or maybe parents should chill out and let their children’s interests dictate the chance to make some very cool (often unique) discoveries.
But we are not the only censors in the household. Ezekiel, who read Twilight, hated it (he will happily tell you why). Nutshell: he felt it did not deserve the attention it’s received. He also rejected the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (admittedly, it came out long past the moment it would have been age appropriate for him, but he’s a generous reader that way, and still clamors to read every picture book that comes through our door). Perhaps because Ezekiel had such a strong opinion about the books (although he never read them), Lucien adopted the same attitude and so we just missed the fuss. Until last week, that is, when Remy—a first grader—asked to get hold of a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a read-aloud.
Hold the presses. Remy has spent much of the last year taking a firm stance about long read-aloud books (books with chapters) and it’s this: he just says no. He has rejected just about every book I’ve tried, from Joanna Hurwitz’ fetching and sweet Pee Wee’s Tale (in which a guinea pig is left to fend for himself in Central Park and is helped along by a kind squirrel) to Charlotte’s Web (his mother’s all-time favorite book ever). We’ve managed to read—and enjoy—plenty of shorter books, from two of Cynthia Rylant’s series—Henry and Mudge and Mr. Putter and Tabby (another personal favorite of his mama’s)—to all range of picture books, most especially those by Rosemary Wells, Bob Graham, and John Burningham. So, here he was, requesting a longer read-aloud. What could I say—above the objections of his eldest brother—but sure? (Believe me, his eldest brother had colored my view of Wimpy Kid, as had some friends’ opinions of the series).
I’d said I’d read to him during a wedding reception this past weekend (certain that he’d end up playing with the kids, which indeed he did—and went from being a reluctant guest-to-be to wanting to stay until the bitter end—and then fall asleep on the two-hour car ride home, which he did). Thing is, he woke up when we got home around ten. “You said you’d read to me,” he pleaded, having been woken at one of those moments in the sleep cycle that allowed for being wakeful. Given that those are words I had been yearning to hear from Remy, I agreed. Lucien and Ezekiel also flocked to my bed to listen. During this read-aloud session, we reached the scene when Greg has ended up in a play of the Wizard of Oz (as a tree) and because I don’t want to give the laughs away, I’ll just talk about the reactions in my room: we were all laughing pretty hysterically.
I tucked Remy and Lucien into bed. Ezekiel snatched both of the first two volumes and proceeded to read them in his room before he went to sleep. Suffice to say, he now approves of the series, and is hip to the idea of our getting the next three (as we undoubtedly will).
The next morning while I was working, Remy made another exciting reading-related discovery: he could get Lucien to read Wimpy Kid to him. The two of them were curled together on the big comfy chair in the corner of the living room while Lucien read to Remy. As Lucien read, he relaxed, adding in voices of the characters (something his papa does exceedingly well). The two brothers were giggling together for a solid hour. Later, when adolescent brother descended from his chamber, the threesome traded notes about favorite scenes.
Then, yesterday morning, Lucien woke with the (very mild) plague-like-in-its-reach flu pummeling the sixth grade (fever, sore throat, hiney-swiney perhaps) and so he spent the day, in part, reading. He finished that second Wimpy Kid book, and he also continued reading Harriet the Spy (another of his mama’s most favorite books ever). If you recall Harriet’s voyeurism, she makes some pretty astonishing observations about complex things like class and race. It seems to me that sixth grade is the perfect moment to read this book. In fact, I am pretty certain that when I read it (multiple times, starting in about third grade), I missed how very important the book really is (so, if you only vaguely remember it, I do suggest reading it again).
Last night, I started reading the second Wimpy Kid to Remy where he and Lucien had left off. Although structured like a diary (duh), the narrative is slim enough that a parent reader can hop back pages and pages later without feeling she or he has missed too terribly much. Indeed, I was right back in the mix of Greg’s trials and tribulations instantly.
Wimpy Kid is about a kid squarely in the middle: middle school, middle brother (we know a thing or two about middle brothers around here). Is it meant for first graders? Shouldn’t they be reveling in the world of Henry Huggins and his paper route or Ramona and her misadventures? I really hope, in the way that I tried to read Harriet the Spy to Lucien—and he rejected the idea—that Remy will find his way to Beverly Cleary (I did try to read to him about the spunky mouse, Ralph, in The Mouse and the Motorcycle; that, too, rejected) and I’m glad that at school the read-aloud of Stuart Little is capturing his fancy (he didn’t finish his lunch because he was so intently listening one day last week). I think in first grade they also read the wonderfully silly Mr. Popper’s Penguins to the kids (another book I tried to entice him with last year, and failed). As we read last night and the father’s worries over eldest son Rodrick, a teenager with a heavy metal band, possibly aspiring to be a high school wannabe at 35 like one of Rodrick’s fellow band members was totally lost on Remy. Remy’s favorite character in the series? It’s Greg and Rodrick’s three year-old brother, Manny. That says to me Remy gets what he gets and misses plenty. So be it. The silent trees in the play were the funniest part, after all, and he totally “got” that.
If I do have a bias—having let go of so much worry about appropriateness (and really, if you knew the television shows I let Remy watch with me, you’d be shocked and horrified; I’ve delved into total bad parent patrol territory when he watches with me while I exercise)—it’s that I like to keep the read-aloud young rather than stretching old. A book like Charlotte’s Web, to my mind, is one to wait for, because it’s so beautiful, and I’d rather my grasp at the ring or bite of the apple with my kid at a book occur when I think the child will truly understand it, just in case she or he is reluctant to revisit books (having said that, I read it to Ezekiel when he was barely four).
There are so many books to enjoy at earlier reading and listening levels, ones I didn’t know about before being steered toward them by my friends, and favored children’s book advisers, Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt, co-owners of the Flying Pig Bookstore (and officially now, cousins-in-law!). Dick King-Smith should be a muse to all parents of early elementary school students, from his famous Babe to his less famous but fantastic Lady Lollipop and the incredibly sweet Sophie’s Adventures and about a zillion more besides. While you can suffer through the stack of Magic School Bus or Magic Treehouse books, you can leave those series to your independent readers, whenever they get there, and enjoy plenty of other simple but engaging stories, from classics like Winnie the Pooh to newer tales such as Jill Murphy’s charming witch school romp, The Worst Witch.
If I have one more bias, it’s about sometimes handing your child a book you think she or he is ready for and should read (and then you hope, will read and will like). I shoved Judy Blume’s Then Again Maybe I Won’t and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret into Ezekiel’s unwilling hands (and am soon to hand them to Lucien, before the sixth grade begins this year’s round of its Human Growth and Change unit). Despite Ezekiel’s protestations and discomfort at the idea of reading those books, he liked them—a lot. Sometimes, books surprise us with their gifts and other times, the gifts are known, and should be shared.
The nice thing about having so many kids spread out over a dozen years is that you get lots of chances to try things, to reflect upon yourself as a parent (and person) and to try again. You see lots, including that there’s not a single “right” way to parent any more than there are really “bad” books. If anything, I see how personality—my children’s, mine, my husband’s—affects how we do things. With a book lover (Ezekiel, first, now Saskia), a parent finds him or herself reading aloud a great deal. With another kind of kid—more visual, more kinesthetic, more culinary, perhaps—a parent may find other activities trump reading as a primary shared activity.
Looking back when they are all grown up, I am guessing I’m going to feel good we spent time together and loved each other and talked about everything under the sun. I’m going to be glad we shared books, art, soup, soccer, theater and walks. Tucked in the midst of all that great sharing (and all else), I’ll remember the Wimpy Kid lesson: don’t be too quick to judge and do be willing to follow the child’s lead.