Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Reading-Aloud Years

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I've never been particularly nostalgic. When my other mom friends were folding their babies' clothes gently away, storing their memories, I was always moving on to the next thing. Walking! Talking! Every stage was better than the last, tomorrow always an improvement on today.

Maybe that's what it's like to raise a colicky baby. Those first few months are so hard, each new stage is a gift. But sometimes I wish I'd had some of that nostalgia, so that I might better remember the early days.

These days I'm beginning to understand nostalgia a little bit. I still have friends and relatives with babies, but mostly I'm around teenagers, and parents of teenagers. We wonder if our kids will ever learn to drive. We notice that they are getting more junk mail than we are --the colleges are starting to stalk them. We talk about the SATs and try to keep the anxiety at bay. Meanwhile, I read the young adult novels I know Mariah is reading -- Speak, whose main character can't bring herself to report her rape; Monster, whose protagonist writes the screenplay of his life while awaiting trial for murder; Feed, whose teenaged protagonists fade into affectless consumerism -- and I'm grateful to feel some nostalgia for the reading-aloud days.

The teen books feel like eavesdropping to me. They remind me of adolescence so precisely -- they feel fierce, private, swinging wildly through the extremes of those days. Melinda in Speak and her successor Kate in Catalyst are some of those bright, intense girls that I wanted to be even when I feared their intensity, that I see glimpses of in my daughter and her friends. I don't know the kids from Monster and Feed yet, and I hope I don't meet them soon, but their worlds are fully realized and fully their own. These are not "problem-of-the-week" books by any means -- though the kids face problems, and real ones; the books are neither didactic nor sensational. They allow me in as an eavesdropper, a voyeur, but these aren't, right now, books for sharing aloud.

I've been reading aloud to my kids for sixteen years now, give or take. In the early years, I read Mariah picture books and early readers until I memorized them. I still wake my children with lines from an old Dr. Seuss book, Great Day for Up!: "Up, up, the sun is getting up! The sun gets up, so up with you. Up ear number one, ear number two!" I can picture the book as I recite the words, which I read at bedtime for years, ignoring the book's message in the pleasure of reading aloud together.

In the reading-aloud days, my daughter and I shared the excitement of discovering Harry Potter before anyone else had. Well, it felt like that, though, in fact, there was already a waiting list at the library for the first one. We read that one, and the next, and then waited with everyone else for the later installments. In fact, it was Harry who killed our reading aloud: both Mariah and I took to sneaking the book away, reading ahead on our own, to find out what happened next. Seven years later, Nick did the same thing.

After Harry, Mariah and I gave it up; she could read faster on her own, and she couldn't bear to wait to find out what happened next. We reunited for The Amber Spyglass, though, the third volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Triology; we'd traveled too long together with Will and Lyra to let them go separately. While the Harry novels were just entertainment for us -- great entertainment, but not much more -- the Pullman trilogy gave rise to conversations about faith and science and belief that we needed to share. So I sat on the one end of the couch, Mariah on the other, our feet meeting in the middle, and we both cried as Lyra separated from her daemon, Pantalaimon, her soul in animal shape. And again at the end when she and Will said good-bye and returned, each to their own world, forever.

While Mariah and I are done, Nick still craves a half hour of reading before bed, though already we're finding it easy to give up a night here or there for the Olympics or a movie or some other special occasion. We, too, have graduated long since from picture books and early readers, though in those days he chose different ones from Mariah, needed to hear different words. For months he rejected Where the Wild Things Are, never explaining why, simply putting it aside when I chose it. In the Night Kitchen fared better, its hero's name (Mickey) rhyming with his own, sort of. For the last few years, though, we've been working through some fantasy series: Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and others. These days we squeeze into his bottom bunk, pile up the pillows, turn on the light, and read another chapter of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first in a fantasy trilogy we're enjoying. It's hard to read snarky footnotes out loud, I've learned, but it's also fun: the novel gives voice to a pedantic djinni and his young master in alternating chapters, and Bartimaeus, the djinni, can't be contained in the pages of the story. We escape in these books, mostly, reading about worlds that never were or can be, but enjoying the ways the characters make them real anyway.

I thought I'd be reading to them both forever, if I thought about it at all. It has become such a part of our common lives that I now wonder what I will do with that time. I love the feeling of the words filling my mouth: the complicated Edwardian sentences of The Wind in the Willows, the nonsense of The Owl and the Pussycat, the lullaby cadences of Good-Night, Moon. Reading those books with Nick on my lap, seven years after I'd read them to Mariah, the words came out of my mouth almost before my eyes saw them on the page; they are old friends, the friends of their childhoods -- some of them, the friends of my childhood, as well. When I read The Hobbit to them both, separately, I remembered my father's voice intoning, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" as I leaned up next to him on the long flight to Tokyo when we moved there in 1966. I wonder now if he planned it that way, introducing me to the new world of Middle Earth just as we were really leaving our own home, our own context, behind. I don't remember thinking about it that way; I just remember enjoying the tunes he made up for the songs of the dwarfs and elves. Though I couldn't remember Dad's tunes, I did the same for my own kids. I'm not introducing them to any new homes, lately -- we've been in the same house longer than Nick has been alive, longer than I've ever lived in any other house -- but I still want them to have that experience of adventure along with the comfort of reading together.

Nick changed rooms recently, and we had to move all the books out of the bookcase. As I piled them up to move into the new room -- memorable ones by Sendak and Wells and Keats and Lobel as well as less memorable ones he'd still loved to pieces -- he told me he didn't want them all, and sorted through, picking only a few of the picture books he used to take to bed with him when we were done reading. The rest, he didn't want; I could throw them out, for all he cared.

I've thrown or given away most of his baby clothes, and Mariah's; their toys and the baby furniture have gone on to other children or to Goodwill. The books, though -- I guess I am nostalgic, after all. I've put them back in another bookcase, waiting to be read again.


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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