Before she was born, I often daydreamed about afternoons spent cuddling with my daughter on the couch and reading her stories. Thus far, this is one of many (oh, so many) such dreams that reality has not borne out. In the daytime, unless she’s super tired or under the weather, Chelsea is way too busy to cuddle. She’s got her toes to chew, raspberries to blow, rubber giraffes to pummel me with. We’re limited to cloth books for afternoon reads—and I’m using the word ‘reads’ in the loosest possible way, as it is impossible to turn the pages when she is gnawing on them. (We have also tried board books, but after that time I momentarily relaxed my grasp on Goodnight Moon and she nearly knocked herself out with it, I decided to hold off on those for awhile). But at bedtime, when she’s all warm and drowsy and otherwise occupied with filling her belly, I’ve been breaking out the books of my childhood and adolescence. Re-reading them after so many years—-more than twenty, for some—has been a fascinating, though occasionally heartbreaking, enterprise.
The very first book I read her was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. She was maybe a month old then and I was feeding her for what felt like the millionth time. (Did you know that it takes a baby an hour to eat, at first? And they eat every two hours? Well, now you do.) I had discovered that there was a limit, after all, to the amount of time I could spend just staring, adoringly, at my wriggly little being. I was bored, and feeling guilty about feeling bored, and also very, very tired. I was seriously worried I might fall asleep, which ultimately trumped the guilt I felt about reaching for a book, my go-to cure for boredom. I chose A Tree Grows In Brooklyn because I could take it from the shelf without disturbing her, and because I remembered it as being about a girl my age at the time I read it (around fourteen) who liked to sit on her fire escape to read and spy on her neighbours. I didn’t remember it as being a particularly sad novel. I remembered it as being a kind of happy one—probably, I realize now, because it was a comfort to me. It’s about a bookish girl, Francie, who has a hard time fitting in anywhere but she makes it, in the end. However…it’s actually probably one of the saddest books ever written. At least, it’s definitely one of the saddest that I’ve read.
Francie’s father is a shiftless, if occasionally charming, drunk who dies when she is still quite young. The family lives in poverty, in an era when the terms ‘racism’, ‘domestic abuse’, and ‘corporal punishment’ didn’t exist but were everyday realities with which young Francie is casually familiar. She and her brother have to take menial jobs to keep themselves fed when their mother unexpectedly gets pregnant. Her aunt, meanwhile, has ten miscarriages. Francie herself is rescued from a sexual predator, but not before she is thoroughly terrified…it’s an unrelenting heartbreak of a book, basically, and completely inappropriate for reading to a young child. Since she was pretty much pre-verbal at the time, I don’t think Chelsea was too scarred by it, but still, I decided to move to safer ground for the next book…
…and so I went for E.B. White. I know, I know, Charlotte’s Web is also sad, but not the A Tree Grows In Brooklyn kind of sad. And it was just as charming and funny as I remembered, too. Next up were Stuart Little (also charming, though uneven, and the end is a total let-down) and The Trumpet of the Swan (enjoyable, though the premise is a wee bit too whimsical for me, now). After that, The Chronicles of Narnia, but I quithalfway through. The second book is particularly good, or at least it lives up to my fond memory of it, but as the series wears on, there seem to be more and more battles (which may have thrilled my young self, but now I find them totally tedious – just tell me who ends up dead, already!) and the Christian symbolism gets more and more overt. Of course, this completely escaped my notice as an adolescent, as I spent every one of the Masses I was required to attend either daydreaming or making faces at my brother—but it grated tiresomely on my nerves now, as the years have not exactly increased my patience for preaching. Next up was Winnie the Pooh, also the first book I bought for Chelsea (the one my mum read me is still stored somewhere in my parents’ house, but inaccessible due to a massive reno). I read it four or five times, maybe more, before I was ready to move on to something else.It really is that delightful, and if you don’t think so, there’s probably something seriously wrong with you.
Right now, we’re reading The Little Prince, the plot of which I couldn’t remember at all, but I’m loving it. I can’t quite sum it up now as we’re only about a third of the way in, but I just finished reading the chapter in which the little prince visits the planet inhabited by a lone businessman who ‘owns and administers’ the stars. Can hardly wait to see who he’ll meet tomorrow night. Seriously, I’m not kidding. After that, I’m planning on reading The Tales of Peter Rabbit, if I can manage to hold it and my sleepy baby easily enough (my copy is big and illustrated)…but I’ve got many, many more nights of bedtime stories ahead of me than books on the shelf so please, send us your recommendations! What did you read, or have read to you, as a child? Or what are you currently reading to your kids?