Liz and I share a Kindle account, which means both of our books appear in a list on our iPhone, where we do all of our reading. The problem, of course, is that Liz reads a book a week and I complete a book maybe every two months. Which means that I have to scroll through about a half dozen of Liz’s books every time I try to read. It’s totally humiliating.
The good news, though, is that while I have passed on to my children little more than my genetically-perfect eyebrows and my love for cheddar popcorn, Liz has passed on something useful: Her passion for reading.
Liz has read our kids the entire Narnia series. She’s read them the entire Harry Potter series. She does all the voices, she does it every night, and it’s seriously impressive. It is no surprise they have this love of reading.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not demonizing other forms of media. In my early years, up to age ten, we had a TV, and I have outstanding memories of it.
Our TV was one of those boxy things with a gentle beer belly of a screen. Black and white, no remote. It had two massive dials on it that looked like something off a submarine – the top one was a chunky channel changer that numbered from two to thirteen. Instead of a 1 there was just the letter U. When you changed the channel the dial clunked into place like you had just sealed the Hoover Dam.
When the channels weren’t coming in clearly you had to adjust the metal rabbit ears on the top of the TV, and somebody would have to stand there and literally hold them because rabbit ears, like a puppy, sometimes just needed to be held.
I watched Saturday morning cartoons (which probably looked amazing in color). I watched Gilligan’s Island and the Love Boat and Miami Vice. I wasn’t allowed to watch the 1983 TV movie The Day After about the coming nuclear holocaust (these were the Reagan years, people). The latest I ever stayed up in my life to that point was for the Jerry Lewis telethon because they promised that KITT, the car from Knight Rider, would be coming on. But I never saw KITT and I’ve been disappointed ever since.
The TV was great. It was fun.
But the TV told me what to think. It gave me all the detail I needed. The content from it came prepackaged, like a microwaveable dinner that you heated and peeled back the hot plastic.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked TV.
But I loved the library.
This might sound corny, but if magic was a real thing, I believe that walking into the library as a kid would be what magic felt like.
The smell of the library hit me first. There is nothing like that smell of books – rich and boundless. I would wander past the boring stuff – the rows of Encyclopedias where you did your book reports, photocopying the pages about the Aztecs, pressing the thick binding down to the glass to make sure you got it all.
Past the Reference section, past Adult Non-Fiction, and you were in the Children’s section. You could scoot past the baby books with their half-inch thick cardboard pages on waist-high shelves.
And then you would arrive in the taller shelves – the forest of middle grade and young adult. Laid out in front of you was this wall of adventure, pressed in two-inch increments, each one marked with mysterious little call numbers at the base of the spine.
It was better than a candy store. It was better than a toy store and better than going to the movies. It was better because this moment, standing in this forest of possibility, you experienced the most counter-cultural thing of all: It was all completely free. You could just take it. You couldn’t pay for it if you tried. The librarian would take out that little card inside the back cover, stamp a return date, and hand you your small stack of books, and you could just walk out the door.
I am blessed with many wonderful memories in my life, as a child and as an adult. But there are few memories more consistently magical than losing myself in a library book that cost me nothing and gave me an experience that I might never forget. There are characters in books that I read and reread that I recall far more vividly than I remember actual friends I had.
I was a voracious reader when I was young. I do far more writing than reading now, probably because I am so desperate to try to create that magical feeling – maybe the way people who love music learn to play guitar in order to create the thing they love.
But Lizzie, she keeps the kids reading. She never stops. And when I read with the kids, when we are all reading together, I am as happy as I am doing anything. It reminds me of the endless hours I spent reading quietly and happily with my own parents, both great readers.
I’ll share this great moment from last year:
Finn asked to read Little Princes, the memoir I wrote. I told him no for a long time, feeling like it was too old for him. But Liz gave him the book anyway and told him he could start it.
He took it and he didn’t put it down. Four days later, he had read the entire book. I took a picture of him reading it.
What made it especially amazing for me was that I wrote Little Princes in the months around Finn’s birth. My first meeting with publishers bidding on the book was the day Finn was born – which meant the first person I called when we were heading to the hospital was not my mother but my literary agent, who immediately cancelled all our meetings.
So I ended up meeting HarperCollins (my publisher) five days later, bleary-eyed, showing them photos of my newborn son. This was the photo I passed around…
So for me, seeing Finn, who is born at the end of the book, reading that book, was a thing to behold.
Last night at dinner Lizzie and I listened as Finn and Lucy, readers both, children of readers, lovers of the library, told us about the stories they are writing. Lucy’s was about a stray dog. Finn’s is about a kid who finds a way to deal with an older bully. And it took everything I had not to leap over the broccoli and hug both of them until it was time for bed.
Anyway. In case you’re looking for new reading material, here are….
The Top Five Books My Kids Have Read This Past Year:
1.) Dork Diaries (Rachel Renee Russell).
The library can’t keep the Dork Diaries in stock. There are a million of them. And they’re all funny and amazing and girls love them. And the fact that little girls relate to being dorks is pretty much the best thing ever.
2.) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney).
Finn awaits the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid the way I wait for the next Star Wars. It makes me almost sympathetic toward the author, knowing how much pressure is on him to please those kids. But like Dork Diaries, the amazing thing about these books is that they are all about how it’s okay to be dorky and wimpy. I’m guessing the Greatest Generation didn’t have a lot of books like that.
3.) The Losers Club (Andrew Clements).
About a kid who can’t stop reading. So he starts a club that he doesn’t want anyone to join – in order to ward people away he names it The Losers Club, because then he can be alone. Finn, an introvert like his dad, LOVES this book. I sort of want to start a Losers Club now.
4.) Fuzzy Mud (Louis Sachar).
Finn is in a book club in 4th grade, which is just unbearably cute even though I can’t say that, much in the way I’m not allowed to say “play date” with him anymore because he’s in 4th grade and now it’s called a “hang out.” I’d be embarrassed too if I was my father. Fuzzy Mud was written by the guy who wrote Holes. I’m reading it now because when Finn finishes a book he likes he’s all like “Dad, you have to read this” so I try to. Of course Lizzie has already read it because Lizzie has read everything.
5.) Pegasus Book 1: The Flame of Olympus. (Kate O’Hearn)
Lemme tell you how to get a second grader to read a serious chapter book: When Pegasus crashes onto a Manhattan roof during a terrible storm, Emily’s life changes forever. That’s how. Who doesn’t want to be a Emily right now? Everyone wants to be Emily. You want to be Emily, I want to be Emily. This is a great series.
Okay, thanks for letting me babble on about books and stuff. I’m done.