Dec 20, 2006

Bowlful of Mush

I’m the kind of person who reads to my children. I’m a reader. I’m a teacher. I’m an English major. I’m involved.

I’m the kind of person who reads to my children. But I don’t.

I’ve tried to read to my children. I’d like to be able to read to my children. I read articles about reading to my children. But when it comes down to it, it’s not something I do.

The book in my hand might as well be a tranquilizer on my tongue. It’s a narcotic--it knocks me out. I struggle to keep my focus, my eyes water, I become resentful and impatient.

The pages multiply. Time slows to a swamplike standstill. I’m never going to make it to the end. I fidget as I attempt to shift my body into more wakeful positions. The tiny black on white marks play tricks on my retinas. They shift, they hypnotize, they lull me to sleep.

It's not that the books I'm trying to read are bad books. I’m trying to read books I know I like--books with humor, and interesting plots. The classics.

In theory, I adore everything by William Steig--The Amazing Bone, Amos and Boris, the giggle-inducing and potentially quick Pete’s a Pizza). In practice, I find them wordy and full of time-consuming twists and diversions.

In theory, I love Dr. Seuss--but when the Onceler lets down his bucket for the fifteen cents and the nail and something about a snail in exchange for telling the tale of The Lorax, I find myself hoping that this time the boy will realize he doesn’t have the right change and go home instead.

Twenty twenty twenty four hours ago, I was absolutely sedated as I struggled to get through Where the Wild Things Are. During the first few pages which must be read and considered even though they’re no where near the fun monsters (which is the only reason we bother with this neglected kid Max), several enormous yawns swell up in my ears. I end up creating more inflection in my voice from stifling and/or recovering from yawns than I do from enthusiastic and dramatic reading.

The length of the book is irrelevant. Goodnight Moon is a simple book with a mind-numbing repetiveness and a reasonable hundred and twenty-six words. But when I read it aloud to my daughter it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r and I start to hate it. Goodnight to the old lady whispering hush. The old lady’s creepy, why is she in the room, why do we only find out about her in the end, and what’s up with the bowl full of mush? What is mush? Why is the bowl still full? Why do I feel like a bowl full of mush? These are the things I think once I’ve read my seven words, while I wait for my two year old to finish cataloging every item she recognizes --moon? cow? kitty? bed? brush?.

My children will never be among the ranks of kids whose parents brag that they have entire books memorized. My kids have never heard the same book read the same way twice. A dedicated fan of the ‘skip a few pages’ trick, I tend to shave all of the unnecessary parts of the journey in the timeless classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. In my haste to get to the end, I sum up an entire adventurous passage in one boring dismissive phrase “and then he saw some other things”--anything just to get the reward of turning the page. I feel bad that my kids are missing out, but not so bad that I don’t take advantage of every opportunity to get to that last page as quickly as possible.

Gimmick books can keep me awake, but not because of riveting writing. Accordion-fold books aren’t practical in any situation (especially in lying down situations). Pop-up books don’t last and usually end up in tears (rips) and tears (sad water) and rousing trips to the drawer for tape. Our lift-the-flap alphabet book is frustrating and demanding--akin to opening the wrappers on twenty-six CDs.

We have a monster book that has two big water-filled balls that serve as the same set of eyes for the monster we meet on each new page. The kids love it but I am consumed by the fact that the book should, ideally, be read flat on the ground. Holding the book upright causes the monsters’ eyeballs to float to the top and all of the monsters end up looking like Don Knotts. Drunken eyes fix firmly on some spot on the ceiling, infuriating me. Not exactly soothing bedtime material.

The good news is that my kids aren’t bored with books. They love to make their own. They crave storytime in school and at playgroup, and are great listeners. My husband reads to them pretty regularly, and they seem to know which way is up when they look at books on their own.

But I do feel guilty about my inability to give them the gift of hearing their favorite books read aloud in their mother’s voice. I try to make up for it in other ways, some of which might even pass as being word-based and educational.

I draw letters with my finger on their soapy backs at bathtime. I describe the ups and downs while I make them, and they try to guess what I’m writing. Bathtime immediately precedes bedtime so I am certain this belongs in the bedtime academics category.

And we have a rhyming back-and-forth game that we use to sum up our day. The other night I said “Mosquito mosquito don’t dare bite, my sweet chil-der-en tonight.”

My four year old responded with his own sophisticated slant rhyme “Bug bug bug don’t eat us up up up.”

We lie in bed staring up at the ceiling in the quiet dark (that can’t be savored when there’s a book to read) and exchanged different kinds of rhymes about our lives “Sister Helen eats watermelon,” “Batman’s in a trashcan.” Important things like that.

Surely these wordplays are as worthy as a reading of The Very Hungry Caterpiller. (And on Sunday he ate this, and on Monday he ate that, and on Tuesday he...Good God! *yawn* how many days are there in a bloody week?). I guess we’ll find out in the long run--in therapy, or test scores, or in slim envelope responses from college admissions departments. I’ll accept my limitations for the time being. But with Harry Potter and other pictureless chapter adventures on the horizon, I’m going to have to figure something out. I love the idea of narrating Narnia. I’d just like to be awake when we step through the wardrobe.

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