Sunday, March 11, 2007

Read Me a Story?

I think I'm a pretty tough cookie when it comes to my children's wheedling. I effortlessly refuse appeals for curly fries from Arby's. I have no qualms about nixing requests for bites of my pizza. I can heartlessly deny the demands of imperious little voices wanting to blow out candles, drink chocolate milk, or wear orange pants and a hot pink shirt to church.

One question, though, leaves me helpless every time -- "Read me a story, Mama?"

Anna Quindlen writes, "I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves." This is unquestionably the kind of home my children live in. Partly because I am completely missing the interior decorating gene, but mostly because we have more books than the Salem Bookmobile. One wall of the family room is a custom-built bookshelf with books from knee-height to ceiling, picture books on the bottom, a nearly complete collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books at the top, and everything from Newbery Award winners to Plato in between.

Mary has bookshelves of her own, Peter has a large toybox that inexplicably filled itself with books instead of toys, and in the rest of the home, the stairs and the laundry room are the only places that are reliably free of books. There are magazines in the dining room, children's books under the couch, Bibles on the nightstands, atlases on the coffee table, and philosophical texts in their sixth year of temporary storage on the office floor.

If it's true that the best way to teach is to do, my children will learn that almost anything can be done while you read. At the end of a particularly talkative evening with one of my children who shall go unnamed, the parents will frequently look at each other over the dinner table and simultaneously say, "Books." There is a quick scramble, and quiet reigns, broken only by the sound of rustling pages and intermittent chuckling if someone is reading Terry Pratchett again. When I fix a dinner that involves more stirring than creativity, I can frequently be found with a wooden spoon in one hand and a novel in the other. I read in the bathtub, although I am no longer allowed to do so with first edition hardbacks. I keep a magazine in the car against the highly unlikely event that I actually arrive somewhere early and have to wait. And really, is there anybody who doesn't read in the bathroom now and then?

Our family came by it honestly. I read at the age of three, to my parents' delight and surprise. (They claim I was reading my father's Greek texts as an infant when I sat in his lap during his study for seminary courses, but I think that may be parental pride speaking.) My mother recalls me coming home from kindergarten exclaiming, "We learned "N" today, and now I can spell my name!", and then settling down on the couch with the Readers' Digest. Michael learned to read a little later, but made up for lost time by reading (at his father's encouragement) the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the age of eight, Crime and Punishment at nine, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at twelve.

My sister and I read voraciously, and our mother's only rules about checking out library books were as follows: 1. Only half of the books could be about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and 2. she wasn't going to help us carry them. We mastered the art of carrying a stack of books balanced on our fingertips and held down with our chins. My mother tells of us nearly causing a librarian heart failure when we approached the desk of the tiny public library in the coastal town where we vacationed with twenty books apiece (including their entire collection of Carolyn Keene). The poor lady gasped, "Do they know they can only check out five books?" We stared at her, goggle-eyed -- that was only going to get us through to dinnertime! We reluctantly put thirty books back and came to the library nearly every day for the next three weeks.

So when my children sidle up to me at five minutes before bedtime, book in hand, it's hard to say no. They haven't yet acquired my sister's devious strategy of getting the parent to agree to just one book, and then choosing the longest one on the shelf. It worked, too -- I remember many nights of happily reading in my own bed for an extra forty-five minutes, half-listening through the thin walls as our father rumbled and muttered and roared his way through Beatrix Potter's interminable The Tale of Mr. Tod. I know the day is coming, though, and I suspect I will be no more able to resist the tactic than my dad was.

Mary is starting to get the idea. She plays quietly until 8:57 p.m., and then comes into our home office with an elaborately surprised expression on her face. With an innocent voice worthy of an Oscar, she asks, "Isn't anybody going to read me a story?" We smile ruefully, caught again at having let the last few minutes of the evening slide by while she hid out in her room. Michael settles down with her for the next chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia, or she and I embark on another giggle session over the absurd adventures of Paddington Bear.

Peter isn't far behind in creative methods of obtaining bedtime stories. He knows that even if it's 9:15 p.m. and we got home late and we're all tired and cranky and need to go to bed, he can always get a result with "Mama, you read me?" He has now adapted this strategy for our normal bedtime reading routine. I will read three or four of the short children's books he loves to hear again and again, doing my best to evoke the proper awe at "He was a beautiful butterfly!" at the end of my 293rd reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As soon as the last page is closed and I am preparing to call it a night, he is already hopping off his perch on the rocking chair and announcing in an eminently reasonable tone, "We read one more." I open my mouth to tell him to get into bed, but I am always swayed by the sight of his pajama-clad backside bobbing over the edge of the toybox as he rummages through it for our long-time favorite, Where's My Hug?

I put him to bed, finally, and he insists that we leave the door open and the nightlight on. He claims it is for "No dark!" but last week I discovered otherwise. I looked into his room and saw, as parents probably have since the first ancestors of Frog and Toad made it to papyrus, the manifestly guilty little face of my child pop up from behind a blanket carefully arranged to conceal the Little Bear book half-hidden under the pillow.

I know I ought to make him stop it. He's disobeying, and he's not getting enough sleep. I'll go talk to him in a few minutes, really I will. Just as soon as I finish my chapter.

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At 3/29/2007, Blogger Ellyn Canfield said...

Hello "cousin Brenda!" Your Christmas letter, which was SUCH a joy and suprise to get, finally unearthed itself and I tracked down your blog! I love your writing, and it's a fun way to catch up. If you go to my blog, you can also find links to Bethany's and one with just pics of the boys.

This one about reading is great- it runs in the family! My sentence for being late to school when I was little was a reading-ban for a day the worst punishment imaginable!


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