Meaty Reader

My kids both love books, and one of the things that I look forward to most as a parent is introducing them to my favorite books. We've read to our kids for almost every day they've been alive -- even when they were tiny infants. When the Bumblebee was a baby, sometimes I would read aloud to her from books that I was reading myself, because just the way my voice changed when I was reading her a story (versus talking to her) seemed to calm her down. We have literally thousands of books in our house, that run the gamut from kids' books, to contemporary trade fiction, to junky mysteries, to scholarly tomes (hello Riverside Shakespeare). We've got amateur poetry, family autobiography, literary crit and analysis, theatrical anthologies. We've got a lot of books. Once, my mom asked me if there was any room in our house that didn't have a bookshelf in it, and I told her, "Of course, Mom, I would never store books in the bathroom -- water is bad for them." That was before the cookbooks got moved into the dining room, though, so now there are three rooms in our house with no permanent collection.

Both of our kids have bookshelves that are crammed full of picture books, board books, and lately, chapter books. Over the years, we've read the Bee some books that were (at the time) way beyond her comprehension (The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, The Wizard of Oz). When the Bee was born, I started reading kids' and young adult books again, so that I would be prepared when she was ready to read that stuff, and I've found some amazing things along the way (although nothing yet to dislodge my personal favorite, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book I must have read twice a year from ages 8 to 11). The Sweet Potato is currently in a phase where he drags piles of books (mostly board books) from one room to another, demanding to have them read. And the Bee has gotten to be a good enough reader that she can sometimes read those books to him, which makes him (and me) very happy.

My own parents had very different attitudes about books. I grew up in a house with a lot of books -- when I was 6 or 7, my dad built a bookcase from one end of our upstairs hall to the other, to house his own books. He had great, eclectic taste in novels, and was definitely the parent that you wanted to have reading to you at bedtime. I vividly remember lying in my parents' bed with my two brothers, as he read aloud to us from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and later Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I think we had every Roald Dahl book that was intended for children, and some that weren't.

My dad played a very important role in my development as a reader, and it continued on as I got older, even as my parents' marriage crumbled and eventually fell apart. He always encouraged me to read, and gave me books that he thought would challenge me. He let me read anything on his shelves, although I do remember once or twice having him tell me (when I was 12 or 13) that I should wait until high school to read a certain novel.

His own reading tended to the black humorists. He was a great fan of Vonnegut's, and had all of John Irving's early work (the Irving novels were among the books he thought I read a year or two too early). He also had stuff by Woody Allen, and Steve Martin's first book, Cruel Shoes (which I found hilarious as an adolescent). But I think it was important to his image of himself that he read the work that was contemporary and important. When, in sixth grade, I was given an assignment to write a book report on a biography or autobiography, I went home and looked on his shelf and found The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and wrote my report on that. Needless to say, I was the only suburban white girl in my school who wrote about that book.

My mother had a somewhat different parenting attitude about books. My mom is not really a reader. I don't remember seeing her ever with a book in my childhood, and even now, she tends to read things like The Pilot's Wife. While I read a healthy amount of what's now called chick lit myself, I don't think she ever really enjoyed reading anything that was really meaty. But the other difference between my parents was in the way they felt about my reading. My mom was the parent who would tell me things like, "you've got your nose in a book all the time," or would try to make me stop reading to go out and play.

Looking back now, I know that she wasn't doing this out of some malice toward books. My mom is an educated woman, who values literacy very highly. She sends my kids books. But in my childhood, she came off as a parent who was suspicious of books. When I was 13 or 14, I checked out Lenny Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, from the library, and she was so enraged when she saw me reading it that she made me stop immediately and returned it to the library herself. I'm not sure what bothered her most about

it -- the cursing or the fact of Lenny Bruce himself. The thing that I came away from that experience with, though, was that she didn't trust me to evaluate my own reading. That she thought that just by reading about Bruce's prodigious drug use and profanity, I'd be sure to head that direction myself.

Now that I'm a parent, I see my own parents differently (of course). My mom, at the time of that incident, was going through a bitter separation and divorce from a person who swore like a longshoreman and drank like F. Scott Fitzgerald. My dad and I had really only one thing in common -- our love of reading -- and when he moved out, he knew it was a topic we could connect on, and he knew that by treating me as more of an 'adult' reader, we would bond more easily.

I don't know how I'll react when my kids want to read something that I think is "too old" for them. I get to make those choices now -- I've read the BB the first of the Lemony Snicket books, but not yet Harry Potter, because I think she'll find the Potter book scary, while the Snicket books are not. But what would I do if she wanted to read The Cider House Rules at age 12? I'm not really sure. Luckily, I've still got a few years to decide.

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