Reading to grandchildren

So I’m in Boston visiting a new granddaughter, born three and a half weeks ago but unseen by me until this past Thursday when I flew in from London, and boy, is she a peach. I’m getting some quality grandfather time in with her, and also getting to read to the older ones. Well, just the one who’s three and a half—the one in the middle, who is not quite two, doesn’t quite sit still long enough. But the oldest one will sit still for books now, and will let me read to her for quite a while—just like my own kids did. And this brings back one of the main pleasures of parenthood—reading to my children. And now I get to read to my grandchildren.

When my kids were growing up, my schedule was always a bit uncertain, at least when they were very young. But there was always time for some reading before bed. I don’t know who this was more important for—them, or me. For them, this was sometimes the only time they would see me during the day for a couple of years there, and that was hard for both them and me. For me, this was the special time of the day, the time that made the rest of the day worth it. I must have spent ten or eleven years there reading to them altogether, and it was time well spent—perhaps the most important time I spent with them, in fact.

When we only had the one, I was largely at home, so I got to spend lots of time reading to her while Mrs W was off at grad school. We still have all those books—or my daughter does, and I keep running into them in the collection to read to my granddaughter. Just yesterday, in fact, I rediscovered Gyo Fujikawa’s Oh, What a Busy Day!—what a wonderful book! Great pictures of happy (mostly) children, and hundreds of wonderful rhymes of the three to four year old sort. This was one of the first books we bought our kids, and I love the fact that’s it’s still around.

I still remember those first few books—I had a temporary job at Green Tiger Press in San Diego for the Christmas season, and got some deals on some wonderful books with some wonderful Jesse Wilcox Smith illustrations, and some weird but very colorful books by Cooper Edens. But the prize was the edition of Stevenson’s A Child Garden of Verses that they had gotten the rights to, with the extraordinary illustrations by Charles Robinson. What a classic. This really is one of the best kid’s books ever, and it lasts for years. They seem never to get tired of it. And I can still remember the ones we read the most—”The Swing,” of course, but also “The Moon,” and “The Lamplighter” was a favorite too, even though there was no way they could know what a lamplighter was. For years I had so many of these memorized that I can still remember them. What wonderful poems to clog your memory with.

We were generally broke those days, as young parents often are, so we spent lots of time at the library—San Diego wasn’t broke yet, so the children’s room at the main library had a really good collection, and some really nice librarians, as I recall. So every week or two we would head down there, load up, and come home with a fresh batch. Picture books, mostly because those were the ones you generally couldn’t afford. We would load up on the Margaret Wise Brown books, although we had bought a couple at that point—Goodnight, Moon, and The Runaway Bunny. We fell in love with that whole era of children’s book publishing—it was a golden age of writing, and illustration, and we started adding to the Brown titles—Little Fur Family, Sailor Dog (my favorite book as a kid), Mister Dog (my other favorite book as a kid—you know how it is), The Little Island. Brown was prolific, writing many wonderful children’s books, and she know exactly what would work. There’s a reason why Goodnight, Moon is still in print.

This was also around the time we started really just exploring writers we had never heard of. Who has heard of children’s book authors (except maybe Maurice Sendak) who doesn‘t have children? And we started to get a feeling for the delicate balance of words and pictures that characterized great children’s books, at least for younger readers. So we discovered the magic of Eve Rice, whose Goodnight, Goodnight is a brilliant depiction of, well, people saying goodnight to each other across the city. But what makes it work are the illustrations, all black and white and yellow, which are perfect. What often makes Brown’s books so brilliant are the clever illustrations, usually by Clement Hurd. Again, there must be some instinct here that lets people tap directly into what children want, and what will work—Hurd certainly had it, given the huge number of successful and still-in-print books he illustrated.

And it’s clear that most books for kids this age—say three through six, or at whenever kids start to read—are meant to be read aloud. And that there’s almost an art to reading aloud—everyone does it, I did it, but sometimes it takes a while to get a book just right. No matter how many times I’ve read Goodnight, Moon aloud (hundreds), I still take some pains to try to get it right, to do it justice, because that’s when it works the best. And when I say works, I mean that it does what it sets out to do—reach into the minds of children.

Rice’s book was one of the first we bought, and we weren’t buying that many books those days—and we’ve got it still (which is good, because it’s out of print, although your library may have a copy). Even very good children’s books go out of print, for all the strange and mysterious reasons that good books are allowed to go out of print. Fortunately, many stay in print—all of Sendak remains in print, like nearly all of Brown, and nearly all of James Stevenson’s wonderful books as well. Virginia Burton’s The Little House (also with Clement Hurd illustrations), Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand, Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, classics every one. But some of Tomie de Paola’s books are not, astonishingly, including An Early American Christmas, along with gems such as Goodnight, Goodnight, or Irene Trivas’s delightful Emma’s Christmas, a re-telling of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” from the view of Emma, the recipient of all that largess. Go figure.

De Paola was another discovery around this time, another writer with uncanny instincts for knowing exactly what will work for children of a certain age—we’ve still got those Strega Nona books. The same with the Ahlbergs, and in particular John Burningham. Burningham is a master of writing and illustrating stories that kids think are just wonderful—the Mr. Gumpy stories, or the ones with Shirley (Come Away from the Water, Shirley), and particularly Would You Rather, in which Burningham captures an incredible range of thoughts and wishes that any kid is bound to have in embarrassing situations. In the Shirley books, Burningham captures better than any children’s writer I have come across the simultaneity of adult instructions and conversations with what’s actually going on in a child’s head.

As the kids grew older we moved a couple of times, and I still have vivid memories of the libraries they spent time in—the branch library on Hope Street in Providence, the great children’s library in Highland Park, the average one in Hingham. But all have strong memories for me, because of the time spent there, and because of what they gave my kids. Which was access to entire worlds. Which is what libraries are supposed to do. If some libraries did it better than others, it was largely because of the librarians—a good children’s librarian is a find. The same is true for bookstores with good kids books areas. Ironically, the town with the best library had the most useless bookstore. But these were the years when we would vacation in Vermont and Maine, and there is no shortage of good bookstores in Vermont or Maine, nosiree, especially Northshire Books in Manchester, and Maine Coast Books in Damariscotta, but then there’s Brattleboro, and Chester, and Blue Hill….

What characterizes all these books whether they’re “great” or not, is that they’re great fun to read. I suppose “great” children’s literature is literature that stays with children as they grow up, for whatever reason. But sure there has to be some appeal to adults as well, at least the ones who are doing the reading. What makes Brown, or di Paola, or Stevenson great to read, or Natalie Babbitt or E.L. Koenigsberg for when they’re older, is that they’re incredibly wonderful to read aloud as an adult—there’s an appreciation for this sort of thing that you develop after hundreds of hours of reading aloud. There are children’s books in my library that I will never part with because of the joy that I had reading them. Particularly for an adult, starved for meaningful fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, discovering Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting or Koenigsberg’s Father’s Arcane Daughter was a revelation.

So right now I’m enjoying reliving all of this with Bibs, who is three and a half and just ripe for it. She picks out a bunch of books for me to read, and I dutifully read them, whatever they are, because she picked them out, and it’s important to let her do that. Then she lets me pick out one or two, and I read them too. And then she picks out a couple more. And I know that this little ritual will go on for years, with any luck. Right now it’s Brown and the Berenstain Bears, and Fukiyama, and McCloskey, and Richard Scarry. Soon it will be Stevenson and the Ahlbergs and Anno and Steven Kellogg and Nancy Willard and the Provensons. And then on to Lois Lenski, and eventually to Babbitt and Koenigsberg and other writers for young adults, or older children, or however one choose to describe eleven or twelve year olds. And along the way we’ll discover again the joys of Rosemary Wells, and Bernard Waber, and Arnold Lobel, and William Steig, and David Macauley, and Jane Yolen, and Chris Allsburg. And who knows who else. By then they’ll have found their own authors. My daughters found Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones and Madeline L’Engle on their own. But there’s enough shared experience here across generations to keep us busy and content.

The poet Donald Hall titled his book of baseball essays Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, trying to capture a certain American tradition that still exists. Parents reading books to children is another one, but one that probably gets less attention. I can’t say whether it’s more or less important, or frequent, than fathers playing catch with sons. But those moments of reading to them in the evening always counted as the high point of the day for me, and the fact that both are incurable readers and book people today is something I can take some of the credit (or blame) for was well. And the fact that I can take part in extending this tradition to the next generation is something I’m grateful for. What binds us together can always be greater than what divides us, and that’s as true for families and generations as anything else—even more so, in fact.

When I’m around, I’ll sit on the couch with one or more grandchildren next to me, reading what they want to hear, or in some cases what they don’t want to hear (at least initially). Many of these books are the same ones that I read to their mother when she was the same age. And I’m looking forward to keeping this going as far as I can take it. Realistically, this generation is probably the last one I’ll be able to do this with—it’s not likely that I’ll be here thirty years form now to do this with their children as well, although you never know. But it’s a nice thought, and maybe something to shoot for. If you measure your life by books, as I do, then knowing that these patterns can recur brings me great joy. As does the fact that the next generation is already carrying this wonderful ritual on.

The stamps above were issued by the UK in 2006 in celebration of animals in children’s literature, as part of a joint issue with the United States.

3 replies »

  1. O-Sono by Henry Morgan? Absolutely loved that book. We too had that edition of A Child’s Garden of Verse.

    Books were the thing that saved my childhood. Sadly, I didn’t have parents who cared enough to read to or with me. My father was very proud of the fact that he didn’t speak to me until I was 18.

  2. Ditto here. Books saved my childhood too. The thing is, you can always make sure you don’t make the same mistakes with the next generation, which is why I spent so much time reading to my own kids. Once you get the ritual goikng, it tends to sustain itself.