Reading your favorite books to other people’s children can be a thrill and a revelation. When you have come to rely upon whatever combination of pictures and words have gotten you through mornings and bedtimes and good times and bad - when a book has proven durable in the proverbial rain and on the proverbial train, you are likely to presume that everyone should be swept away by its magic. And, like having someone over to your home for the first time, or serving them dinner, it’s easy to confuse their impulsive reactions with whatever good manners they have learned to deploy as your guest.
Well, not that easy. A kid might fidget, pick at a scab, or follow the hysterical batterings of a housefly against your living room window. Or they might sit absolutely still, drop-jawed and wide-eyed as the story builds to a crescendo and you pause to acknowledge the moment. Savor your powers. Invite, perhaps, a question:
“Who’s your favorite Pokemon?”
“Are you poor?”
“When is my Mommy coming back?”
Maybe they’re bored, maybe you’re boring, still a special guest appearance can often require material that will grab and keep grabbing from page one. That’s too bad. You could probably trace this back to baby books with steering wheels exploding out of them. You could probably trace it back to a lot of things if you wanted to, but you – and I – are almost certainly part of the problem.
Call it vanity (who likes to be yawned at it in the middle of a thrilling recitation?) or call it a lack of nerve. The last time I went to a morning read-aloud at my son’s kindergarten, I brought Outrageous Bodacious Boliver Boggs! Boliver Boggs has a way of getting it over on his teacher, he wears cowboy boots, wrestles with rattlesnakes and grizzly bears, confronts unimaginable peril, plus you can say “Outrageous!” and “Bodacious!” repeatedly and very loud and still look at yourself in the mirror afterwards. The book’s hilarious, really a no-brainer as far as read-aloud goes. The kids loved it. I hardly broke a sweat.
Still, I’m sorry I didn’t bring Roxaboxen, about children who construct an entire imaginary civilization out of rocks and sticks and bushes in the desert. Nothing very dramatic happens in this story. A lizard dies. Kids dress up, grow up. The prose itself is slower, reflective: you can’t shout out “Roxaboxen!” Is this a girly book? For “older readers”? I hope not. A lot of cowboy-loving, rattlesnake-wrestling little boys are probably missing out, and it may finally be too late by the time they are lining up to watch The Transformer Movie.
A couple of years ago I was hired to review grown-up novels for one of many thousands of annual literary competitions. They paid twenty-five bucks a book, and yes, I was poor, plus of course it was also an honor and a privilege to participate in our national conversation about, um, anything. The very nice lady who hired me signed off with this assurance: “It’s not like you have to read the whole book.”
Right. Except you really kind of did. These debut novels were mostly so front-loaded with wordy pyrotechnics it was impossible to tell where, or how, they’d end up. And no, I didn’t read them cover-to-cover, but skipped around between the four- and five-hundred pages, distracted as I generally was by the demands of childcare and hysterical houseflies and scabs on my knees.
Children’s books are different. There will always be distractions - at the library, the bookstore - but let’s call it what is: five minutes of your time to decide if a book is not sufficiently, or immediately, engaging. Recently I brought home a big pile of picture books, some for which I had great hopes, some not. Moving nearer and nearer the bottom of that pile was something called A Pocketful of Cricket. Originally published in 1964, it had even won some kind of big silver badge on its cover, so yeah, it had that to argue against it. The story looked long, dated, boring. I waited. I paid library fines.
Of course it turned out to be terrific – warm, human, guileless, just like the boy in the story who collects red-speckled beans, arrowheads, goose feathers and, yes, a cricket - anything that strikes him as valuable or inherently worthy of further examination. It’s the end of the summer. The boy brings the cricket to school, the teacher wants no part of it, the kids aren’t very welcoming, but nobody ends up playing the villain. They compromise. They work it out.
It’s tempting to think of all the reasons this might not resonate with kids today, sitting in blocky, chaotic classrooms in Brooklyn, Chicago, New Orleans, ambulances whooping outside, their every after-school hour taken up with piano or Hebrew or baseball or painting or television or battling rush hour traffic. But, in keeping with the current political discussion, my sense is that most of these distinctions - urban or rural, modern or old-fashioned - are about as symbolic, or inhibiting, as we make them. As parents we make excuses, but it’s our kids who have to live with them. My twelve-year-old doesn’t have access to a barn to construct a flying machine like Mercer Mayer’s country folks, but maybe he can build an imaginary world in a shoebox like the one that Ezra Jack Keats recommends in The Trip. There aren’t many crickets in my neighborhood either, no arrowheads or magical beans, but my six-year-old is just as happy collecting old paper clips, batteries, bottle-tops and springs – the sort of randomly discarded artifacts that might, upon closer inspection, amount to ordinary beauty.