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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Together in the land of picture books

After an exhausting day, with all the tensions that come up between small child and parent, at last you make it to bedtime. There’s still some low-key power struggling, because the child does not want that light turned out and the parent longs for the blessed sliver of personal time that follows this ritual. And then ...

Then you settle together into a picture book.

And in that closeness of reading out loud, in the sharing of a story, the pointing to favorite places on the pages and the gradual shared relaxation, comes the redemption of everything. These times can be so warm and sweet that, years later, they’re almost too poignant for the aging parent to remember. And if you should one day spot one of those favorite books, or hear about someone else’s read-aloud memories, it’s like finding the memento of a long-ago love affair. Because, really, that’s what it was.


New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner reminisced the other day about his family’s reading-together times in “Memories of a Bedtime Book Club,” a very nice essay, written for the Times and posted here, about boxing up the picture books after his boys had become teenagers. Along with what sounds like a fine, intact family, Garner had a close connection to the Times Book Review’s longtime editor, Eden Ross Lipson, who “wouldn’t recommend a book for your children,” he writes, “until she knew everything about them and, almost as importantly, everything about you.”

We didn’t exactly have that. Our book club was just Brad and me, and only on alternate weekends. For expert assistance, we had the dampened basement of a small city library. But our reading-together times, which Garner’s essay has me remembering, meant so, so much to us. They were the close, warm, exploring center of our fractured lives.

Brad was just one when his mom and I broke up. I went to live in a second-floor apartment in Montpelier, Vt., not far from the home that he shared with his mom until he was in kindergarten, when they moved to another town. All through his preschool and primary-school years, until I also moved to that town, he came to live and sleep at my place only on weekends, generally every other one.

In those bedtimes was born our rule of three books. I can’t say exactly how that got started, but I know Brad figured out three things. First, reading three books at bedtime had become our custom; second, some books are longer than others; and third, if he insisted on the longest books he could find on our shelf or in the library, then reading-together could go on for a loong time. And it did, as we leaned into our books and each other.

The books that Brad chose, at least in part for page count and complexity, included the first Curious George stories and several of those cruelly oversized Richard Scarry things, in which we’d have to find Goldbug on every page, along with pointing out various other features on every many-featured spread. But there were also the picture books that we loved just because we loved them.

Often these were quirky choices. I remember we loved a slim thing called The Harmonica Man, about a boy who befriends a colorful traveling soul who (like Brad’s dad) plays the harmonica. There was Shaker Lane, an oddly touching book about the residents of a town’s poorest road, whose neighborhood was lost to memory after it was flooded in the name of progress. We really liked Owl Moon, Jane Yolen’s nighttime adventure in which a boy and his dad follow the call of a great horned owl to the creature itself; and Taro and the Tofu, the Japanese tale of a boy in wood-soled sandals who, given too much change on his daily errand to fill a sloshing bucket with tofu for his family, fantasizes about his favorite chocolate candy before finally deciding to go back and do the right thing.

But our very favorite was Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows. In this great escapade a gangly redhead in high-top sneakers is pursued not just by cows but by everybody, for a good and loveable reason that you’re always happy to discover together again in the end. I don’t know what happened to our dog-eared Donna, but I’ll never lose its opening lines:

Donna O’Neeshuck was chased by some cows,
And also by mooses and gooses and sows.
It happened one day, when Donna, at play,
Patted a cow on the head.

We found many of our favorites at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the square block of a public library shaped of granite in Montpelier, where the children’s section back then was in the humid basement. The picture books were stuffed onto shelves that were arranged only by the first initial of each author’s last name — and I could never find our favorites in that jumble, but my boy would walk unerringly to the right shelf and pull out the story he wanted.

I was mystified by this. Brad hadn’t yet learned to read. When I finally asked him how he did that, he said, oh, it was no big deal. He’d just memorized the look of the spines.

Last week Brad finished his second year in law school at Drexel University, where he’s president of the Student Bar Association. I write books for middle schoolers, who are generally beyond sharing stories (or much else) with their parents. Once in a while, though, I’ll hear from a mom or dad that they read one of my books with their child, and that it meant something. And I’ll say thank you, very much, for telling me.

Because I know how much that can mean.

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