My only student this semester is ten weeks old today. And, like many of my students, Zachary is a little less excited about reading than I am.
Still, when we converted the guest room into a nursery, the first piece of furniture my husband and I brought home was a bookcase. Over the last four months or so, we’ve watched as that bookcase has gone from fairly empty to almost full: a few books from a friend from book club, a half a shelf of books from my sister, books from a favorite aunt, books from my graduate school friends, from friends of the family, from dear colleagues, from our friends’ parents, even a solid stack of books that my husband and I couldn’t resist buying ourselves, picture books and board books, new books and well-loved hand-me-downs.
I know what magic is held between the covers of those books. I know that reading can transport and transfix, soothe and sustain. And so, I find ways to read to my newborn son every day, even if he’s not fully paying attention.
It doesn’t surprise me that Zachary doesn’t always listen attentively. After all, when we first came home from the hospital, he slept nearly 20 hours a day, and even now that he’s more alert, it’s not as if he sits up on his own or anything. He’s still learning to focus, to make sense of the symphony of colors in our world. He’s easily distracted by something as simple as a beam of light across the room or the irresistible urge to coo or giggle. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
So, at first I read to Zack sometimes when he was sleeping, and my husband read to him from the newspaper. Later, I read one very short story to him at a time. Now, right before he falls asleep for daytime naps, he likes to hear stories as he drifts off. He doesn’t even look at the pictures. Instead, he just listens to the cadence of the words and buries his face into the crook of my neck.
What does surprise me is that no matter how many times I read each of the books on his book shelves, I still read them with a lump in my throat. I’m not just choked up by the stories themselves, which are sentimental enough, and I’m not just overwhelmed by the very notion that I am reading bedtime stories to my son, but I am also hyperaware of the fact that every story I read also has a story.
Some of the books I share with Zachary were my favorite stories when I was a kid, and so, as I read There is a Monster at the End of This Book, Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover to Zack, I hear my own mother’s voice and I remember my own laughter as I turned pages that Grover believed he’d properly secured to keep us from making it to the end of the book.
I think of all the cousins and kids I ever babysat for and all of the stories we read together. When I read Goodnight Moon, I think of the best scene in the fairly mediocre movie, Playing it by Heart, when a mother recites that story to her dying son. I think of my friend Dan, who got in a life-threatening car wreck when we were in high school. I was babysitting at the time. I got a phone call from a friend and then saw Dan’s body being lifted onto an ambulance on a teaser for the 11 o’clock news just as my cousin Josh came out of his room and said he couldn’t sleep. He sat on my lap and I read him a bunch of George and Martha stories and then just held him until we both felt better. (Dan recovered beautifully and my “little” cousin Josh now has two children of his own.)
When I read Where the Wild Things Are, I promise myself that I will adore Zachary even when he’s a wild thing at three months or three years or 13 or 23.
I’m also surprised that most of us only read children’s books as kids or as grownups reading to kids. What about all that time in between? I’m pretty certain that the students I encounter in the classrooms at the College of Mount St. Joseph all come to class knowing the colors of the rainbow, fully capable of reciting all of the letters of the alphabet, and aware that cats say, “meow” and cows say, “moo.”
But, I’m rediscovering that there’s so much more than lessons about colors, the alphabet, or the sounds that animals make in these children’s books. There’s good advice about living and loving and learning in them too, lessons I hope to teach all of my students, Zachary and my college kids.
I want Zachary to, “Think left and think right and think low and think high” just like Dr. Seuss says he should, because, “Oh the thinks you can think up if only you try.”
I want Zachary to prefer “Hug O’ War” to Tug O’ War, just like Shel Silverstein does, so that he ends up “Where everyone kisses, /And everyone grins, /And everyone cuddles, /And everyone wins.”
I want him to understand that friends “always look on the bright side and they always know how to cheer you up” as George teaches Martha, but that friends “also tell you the truth” as Martha teaches George.
I want him to know that I “love him right up to the moon” the way Little Nutbrown Hare loves Big Nutbrown Hare in Guess How Much I Love You, but also, that he can travel “right up to the moon and back” if he just keeps reading.