Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Ten Books


"The​ ​sun​ ​did​ ​not​ ​shine.​ ​ ​It​ ​was​ ​too​ ​wet​ ​to​ ​play.​ ​​​So​ ​we​ ​sat​ ​in​ ​the​ ​house.​ ​​​All​ ​that cold,​ ​cold,​ ​wet​ ​day."​
The Cat in the Hat​​ ​by​ ​Dr.​ ​Seuss

At​ ​breakfast​ ​recently,​ ​my​ ​six-year-old​ ​son​ ​placed​ ​his​ ​soft​ ​little​ ​hand​ ​on​ ​mine.​ ​​He​ ​leaned in​ ​close​ ​and​ ​quietly​ ​confided​ ​to​ ​me​ ​that​ ​he​ ​has​ ​"tons"​ ​of​ ​books​ ​at​ ​his​ ​dad's​ ​house,​ ​but "we​ ​don't​ ​read​ ​very​ ​much​ ​there."​​​ ​This​ ​was​ ​not​ ​a​ ​new​ ​discovery​ ​to​ ​me​—​neither​ ​the​ ​part about​ ​not​ ​reading​ ​at​ ​his​ ​father's​ ​house,​ ​nor​ ​the​ ​part​ ​about​ ​having​ ​tons​ ​of​ ​books.​ ​​​A​ ​very successful​ ​farmer,​ ​my​ ​ex-husband​ ​never​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​hide​ ​the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​he​ ​didn't​ ​like​ ​to​ ​read anything​ ​other​ ​than​ ​farm​ ​journals​ ​and​ ​owner's​ ​manuals​ ​for​ ​tractors.​ ​​​When​ ​we​ ​were together​ ​as​ ​a​ ​family,​ ​I​ ​was​ ​the​ ​caretaker​ ​of​ ​the​ ​books​.​ ​​​I​ ​selected​ ​and purchased​ ​them​ ​as​ ​gifts​ ​for​ ​our​ ​children​ ​on​ ​holidays.​ ​​​I​ ​made​​ ​homes​ ​for​ ​the​m​.​​​ ​And​ ​I​ ​did​ ​98​ ​percent​ ​of​ ​the​ ​reading. Our​ ​kids​ ​always​ ​had​ ​far​ ​too​ ​many​ ​books​—​I​ ​am​ ​not​ ​at​ ​all​ ​ashamed​ ​to​ ​admit​ ​it.​ ​​That's why​ ​it​ ​seems​ ​so​ ​strange​ ​that​ ​I​ ​only​ ​brought​ ​ten​ ​of​ ​the​ ​children's​ ​books​ ​with​ ​us​ ​when​ ​we moved​ ​out.

"In​ ​the​ ​middle​ ​of​ ​the​ ​night,​ ​Miss​ ​Clavel​ ​turned​ ​on​ ​her​ ​light​ ​and​ ​said,​ ​'Something​ ​is not​ ​right.'"​ ​​ ​​
Madeline​​ ​by​ ​Ludwig​ ​Bemelmans

During​ ​our​ ​marriage,​ ​we​ ​lived​ ​on​ ​his​ ​family's​ ​farm,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​home​ ​in​ ​which​ ​my​ ​ex-husband had​ ​lived​ ​his​ ​entire​ ​life.​ When​ ​it​ ​became​ ​clear​ ​that​ ​our​ ​marriage​ ​was​ ​ending​ ​and​ ​the time​ ​came​ ​for​ ​someone​ ​to​ ​leave,​ ​he​ ​declared​ ​that​ ​it​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​me​ ​and​ ​the​ ​kids​.​ ​I did​ ​not​ ​argue.​ ​​ ​With​ ​the​ ​crippling​ ​weight​ ​of​​ ​grief​ ​on​ ​my​ ​shoulders,​ ​I​ ​began the​ ​excruciating​ ​process​ ​of​ ​deciding​ ​what​ ​to​ ​take​ ​with​ ​us.​ ​​I was determined​ ​not​ ​to​ ​dismantle​ ​what​ ​had always​ ​been​ ​my​ ​children's​ ​home​ ​any​ ​more​ ​than​ ​absolutely​ ​necessary. ​That meant​ ​​taking​ ​​the​ ​significant​ ​and​ ​sentimental things​ ​that​ ​comforted​ ​me,​ ​but​ ​leaving​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as​ ​possible to comfort them. ​​​I​ ​did​ ​not​ ​simply​ ​forget​ the​ ​children's​ ​books.​ ​​On​ ​the​ ​contrary,​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​long​ ​and​ ​hard​ ​about​ ​what​ ​to​ ​do with​ ​them.​ ​​Then I​ ​consciously​ ​left​ most of ​the​m behind.​ I wish I could say I had a meaningful method for selecting the ten we took. In truth, it was more carnal than rational. I picked books that unfailingly made us feel good; books with words so familiar we could recite them, or rhymes that were rhythmically upbeat; books that my children requested time and again because they were rituals as much as they were books. ​​​

I​ ​left​ ​pictures​ ​on​ ​the​ ​wall;​ ​I left toys​ ​with​ ​which​ ​the​ ​children​ ​regularly​ ​played​, even​ ​the ones​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​mine​ ​as​ ​a​ ​child;​ I left ​the​ ​dining​ ​room​ ​table​ ​I​ ​had​ ​designed​ ​with​ ​an​ ​Amish carpenter​ ​for​ ​our​ ​first​ ​wedding​ ​anniversary;​ ​I left bedroom​ ​furniture​ ​that​ ​my​ ​family​ ​had​ ​given the​ ​children;​ ​and​ ​yes​—I​ ​left​ ​the​ ​books.

"There's​ ​only​ ​one​ ​way​ ​in​ ​the​ ​whole​ ​wide​ ​world​ ​to​ ​save​ ​a​ ​red,​ ​ripe​ ​strawberry​ ​from the​ ​big,​ ​hungry​ ​Bear!"​ ​​
The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear​ ​​​​by​ ​Don​ ​and​ ​Audrey​ ​Wood

These​ ​weren't​ ​just​ ​books ​though.​ ​​They​ ​were​ ​treasures​ ​I​ ​had​ ​lovingly​ ​hand-picked​ and​ ​inscribed ​with wishes​ ​that​ ​I​ ​imagined showing​ ​to​ ​my​ ​grandchildren​ ​someday​ ​as​ ​we​ ​read​ ​together.​ ​​​"To​ ​Emerson​ ​on​ ​your​ ​third birthday,​ ​with​ ​love​ ​from​ ​Mommy​ ​and​ ​Daddy."​ ​"To​ ​Isaac​ ​on​ ​your​ ​first​ ​Christmas.​ ​​We love​ ​you!!"​ ​I​ ​left​ ​the​ ​books ​and​ ​left​ ​what​ ​felt​ ​like​ ​little​ ​pieces​ ​of​ ​myself​.​ ​​I​ ​don't know​ ​what​ ​made​ ​this ​feel​ ​safe.​ ​​Was​ ​it​ ​denial​ ​of​ ​the​ ​permanency​ ​of​ ​the separation?​ ​Or​ ​certainty​ ​that​ ​I​ ​would​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​return​ ​for​ ​them?​ ​​​It​ ​doesn't​ ​matter, because​ ​hearts​ ​became​ ​bitter​, ​and​ ​lines​ ​were​ ​drawn​,​ ​and​ ​now​ ​it​ ​is​ ​very​ ​clear that​ ​I​ ​will​ ​never​ ​see​ ​those​ ​books​ ​again.

"I​ ​love​ ​you​ ​right​ ​up​ ​to​ ​the​ ​moon​—and​ ​back."​ ​​
​​Guess How Much I Love You ​by Sam​ ​McBratney

Books​ ​and​ ​reading​ ​are​ ​intricately​ ​woven​ ​into​ ​the​ ​fabric​ ​of​ ​our​ ​family​ ​life.​ ​​Our​ ​nightly ritual​ ​of​ ​reading​ ​together​ ​is​ ​an​ ​anchor​ ​of​ ​our​ ​routine.​ ​​We​ ​read.​ ​​And​ ​read.​ ​​And​ ​read. Back​ when​ ​my​ ​son​ ​was​ ​a​ ​toddler,​​ ​we​ ​surveyed​ ​his​ ​bookshelves​ ​every​ ​night​ ​for two​ ​or​ ​three​ ​or​ ​four​ ​(whatever​ ​the​ ​negotiated​ ​number)​ ​selections​ ​to​ ​read​ ​before​ ​eyelids got​ ​heavy​ ​and​ ​lights​ ​were​ ​turned​ ​off.​ ​​Sometimes,​ ​in​ ​search​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​book​ ​that​ ​his little​ ​heart​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​hear,​ ​my​ ​son​ ​would​ ​pull​ ​every​ ​book​ ​off​ ​of​ ​a​ ​shelf,​ ​leaving​ ​a​ ​small mountain​​ ​there​ ​on​ ​the​ ​bedroom​ ​floor.​ ​I​ ​would​ ​pick​ ​them​ ​up​ ​sometime​ ​the​ ​next day​ ​and​ ​return​ ​them​ ​to​ ​their​ ​shelves​, ​all​ ​the​ ​while​ ​muttering​ ​about​ ​"so​ ​many​ ​books"​ ​and "not​ ​enough​ ​shelf​ ​space"​ ​and​ ​"have​ ​to​ ​start​ ​making​ ​him​ ​put​ ​these​ ​back​ ​himself."​​ ​The truth​ ​is,​ ​I​ ​would​ ​gladly​ ​pick​ ​up​ ​books​ ​every​ ​day​ ​for​ ​the​ ​rest​ ​of​ ​my​ ​life​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​give​ ​up those​ ​moments​ ​spent reading​ ​with​ ​him.

"Well,​ ​I​ ​saw​ ​an​ ​ant​ ​on​ ​the​ ​railroad​ ​track.​ ​​The​ ​rail​ ​was​ ​bright.​ ​​The​ ​ant​ ​was​ ​black. He​ ​was​ ​walking​ ​along,​ ​tickety-tack.​ ​​​(That's​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​an​ ​ant​ ​on​ ​the​ ​railroad track.)"​ ​​ ​​
I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track ​ ​​by​ ​Joshua​ ​Prince

When​ ​the​ ​books​ ​became​ ​too​ ​numerous​ ​and​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​filled​ ​to​ ​overflowing,​ ​the​ ​kids and​ ​I​ ​would​ ​painstakingly​ ​sort​ ​them.​ ​​We​ ​examined​ ​each​ ​book​, ​deciding​ ​which​ ​ones were​ ​ready​ ​to​ ​be​ ​donated​ ​to​ ​the​ ​public​ ​library​ ​and​ ​"shared​ ​with​ ​our​ ​neighbors​ ​and friends."​​ ​I​ ​cherished​ ​those​ ​sorting​ ​days​, ​partially​ ​for​ ​the​ ​obvious​ ​reason​—making​ ​room for​ ​more​ ​books!—​and​ ​partially​ ​for​ ​the​ ​less obvious​: ​seeing​ ​undeniable​ ​proof,​ ​as​ ​my children​ ​handled​ ​each​ ​book​ ​like​ ​it​ ​were​ ​an​ ​old friend, ​that​ they​ ​had​ ​inherited​ ​my​ ​innate​ ​love of literature.​​ ​Small​ ​hands​ would ​brush​ ​over​ ​each​ ​cover,​ ​as​ ​if​ ​by​ ​doing​ ​so​ ​they​ ​might​ ​touch​ ​and feel​ ​the​ ​characters​ ​and​ ​scenes​ ​of​ ​the​ ​beloved​ ​stories​ ​within.​ ​​It​ ​was​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​say goodbye,​ ​but​ ​we​ ​comforted​ ​ourselves​ ​with​ ​the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​our​ ​books​ ​would​ ​be​ ​waiting​ ​for us​ ​at​ ​the​ ​library​ ​when​ ​we​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​visit​ ​them​ ​again.

"He'll​ ​often​ ​drop​ ​in.​ ​​ ​Only​ ​you​ ​mustn't​ ​press​ ​him.​ ​​ ​He's​ ​wild,​ ​you​ ​know.​ ​​ ​Not​ ​like​ ​a tame​ ​lion."​ ​​​
​​​​The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ​ ​​by​ ​C.S.​ ​Lewis

When​ ​she​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​first​ ​grade,​ ​my​ ​daughter​ ​established​ ​her​ ​own​ ​library,​ ​complete​ ​with card​ ​catalog​ ​and​ ​shelving​ ​system.​ ​​There​ ​were​ ​designated​ ​spots​ ​for​ ​an​ ​assortment​ ​of genres​ ​and​ ​subjects:​ ​​​history​ ​books,​ ​space​ ​and​ ​planet​ ​books,​ ​books​ ​of​ ​poetry,​ ​Bible stories,​ ​tractor​ ​and​ ​farm-themed​ ​books,​ ​and​ ​series​ ​like​ ​Harry Potter,​ ​Percy Jackson​ ​and The Chronicles of Narnia.​ ​​​One​ ​bookshelf​ ​became​ ​two,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​three​ ​as​ ​her​ ​library expanded.​ ​​Each​ ​family​ ​member​ ​was​ ​issued​ ​a​ ​"library​ ​card"​ ​which​ ​allowed​ ​us​ ​to​ ​"check out"​ ​books​ ​and​ ​read​ ​them, as​ ​long​ ​as​ ​we​ ​presented​ ​a​ ​verbal​ ​book​ ​report​ ​when​ ​we returned​ ​them.​ ​​Even​ ​then,​ ​she​ ​obviously​ ​understood​: books​ ​are​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​be​ ​shared.

"If​ ​only​ ​Madame​ ​SoSo​ ​had​ ​looked​ ​behind​ ​the​ ​curtain​ ​even​ ​once​ ​during​ ​her practice,​ ​she​ ​would​ ​have​ ​realized​ ​that​ ​Alma​ ​was​ ​no​ ​ordinary​ ​cat." ​​ ​​
​​​​Opera Cat ​ ​by Tess​ ​Weaver

"On​ ​an​ ​island​ ​in​ ​the​ ​ocean,​ ​near​ ​the​ ​land​ ​of​ ​Singapore,​ ​midst​ ​a​ ​storm​ ​of​ ​great proportion,​ ​fifteen​ ​cats​ ​were​ ​washed​ ​ashore."​ ​​
​​​​​​Castaway Cats ​​by​ ​Lisa​ ​Wheeler

At​ ​about​ ​the​ ​same​ ​time​ ​that​ ​her​ ​library​ ​was​ ​founded,​ ​I​ ​began​ ​reading​ ​the​ ​Harry Potter series​ ​out​ ​loud​ ​to​ ​my​ ​daughter​ ​at​ ​bedtime.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​my​ ​first​ ​time​ ​reading​ ​those​ ​books,​ ​so we​ ​got​ ​lost​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wonder​ ​together.​ ​​​Every​ ​night,​ ​snuggled​ ​up​ ​in​ ​her​ ​bed,​ ​we​ ​would travel​ ​to​ ​Hogwarts​ ​and​ ​join​ ​the​ ​adventure​ ​with​ ​Harry​ ​and​ ​Ron​ ​and​ ​Hermione​ ​and Hagrid.​ ​​​I​ ​used​ ​distinct​ ​voices​ ​for​ ​each​ ​character​ ​and​ ​tried​ ​to​​ ​paint​ vocally ​the​ ​fantastic, vivid​ ​mental​ ​images​ ​the​ ​books​ ​conjured​ ​for​ ​me.​ ​​We​ ​devoured​ ​those​ ​novels,​ ​one​ ​after the​ ​other.​ ​​​Some​ ​nights,​ ​as​ ​one​ ​chapter​ ​turned​ ​into​ ​three​ ​or​ ​four​ ​chapters,​ ​we​ ​read​ ​until her​ ​dad​ ​scolded​ ​both​ ​of​ ​us​ ​into​ ​closing​ ​the​ ​book​ ​and​ ​turning​ ​off​ ​the​ ​light.​ ​​​It​ ​was​ ​such​ ​a special​ ​time​ ​for​ ​me​—for​ ​us.​ ​​Pure​ ​magic.

"The​ ​wand​ ​chooses​ ​the​ ​wizard,​ ​remember . . ."​  ​​
​​​​Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ​by​ ​JK​ ​Rowling

Since books​ ​had​ ​always​ ​been​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​our​ ​life​ ​together, when​ ​we​ ​moved​ ​out and​ ​the children's lives​ ​were​ ​torn​ ​apart,​ ​I​ ​suppose​ ​I​ ​believed​ ​that​ ​in​ ​leaving​ ​their​ ​books, in​ ​leaving​ ​that part​ ​of​ ​their​ ​life​ ​in​ ​place,​ ​I​ ​would​ ​somehow​ ​make​ ​it​ ​easier​ ​for​ ​my​ ​children​ ​to​ ​accept​ ​the idea​ ​that​ ​their​ ​mother​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​lived​ ​with​ ​their​ ​father.​ ​​Even​ ​though​ ​their​ ​home​ ​was forever​ ​changed,​ ​they​ ​could​ ​still​ ​look​ ​over​ ​at​ ​those​ ​books​ ​as​ ​they​ ​climbed​ ​into​ ​bed​ ​at​ ​his house​ ​and​ ​remember​ ​how​ ​things​ ​were​ ​when​ ​all of us were a​ ​family​​ ​under​ ​one​ ​roof.​ ​​​

I​ had ​hoped that​ ​the​ ​books​ ​I​ ​left​ ​behind​ ​would​ ​be​ ​a​ ​link​ ​to​ ​the​ ​past​ ​for​ ​my​ ​kids. Instead,​ ​the​ ​ten​ ​books​ ​we​ ​took​ ​with​ ​us​ ​would​ ​prove​ ​to​ ​be​ ​lights​ ​illuminating​ ​the​ ​path​ ​to our​ ​new​ ​normal.​ ​​​As​ ​one​ ​household​ ​became​ ​two,​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​necessary​ ​process​ ​of redefinition.​ We​ ​shed​ ​the​ ​things​ ​that​ ​were​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​meaningful​ ​or​ ​useful​ ​and​ ​clung​ ​to the​ ​things​ ​that​ ​comforted​ ​and​ ​steadied​ ​us.​ ​​Even​ ​though​ ​we​ ​only​ ​had​ ​ten​ ​books​ ​in​ ​our new​ ​home,​ ​we​ ​continued​ ​to​ ​read​ ​every​ ​night.​ ​​​It​ ​made​ ​us​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​us.​ ​​We​ ​bought​ ​new bookshelves​ ​and​ ​put​ ​those​ ​ten​ ​books​ ​in​ ​their​ ​proper​ ​place.​ ​We​ ​seized​ opportunities​ ​to​ ​visit​ ​bookstores​ ​and​ ​add​ ​to​ ​our​ ​collection.​ ​​We​ ​made​ ​weekly​ ​visits​ ​to​ ​the library​ ​to​ ​add​ ​variety​ ​and​ ​to​ ​visit​ ​those​ ​old​ ​friends​ ​that​ ​we​ ​had donated​ ​in​ ​the​ ​past—and we still do.​ ​​All​ ​of this​ ​serves​ ​to​ ​reassure​ ​me.​ ​​Although​ ​life​ ​as​ ​it​ ​used​ ​to​ ​be​ ​was​ ​shattered,​ ​we​ ​have picked​ ​up​ ​the​ ​pieces​ ​and​ ​are​ ​making​ ​something​ ​new​ ​and​ ​meaningful​ ​again.​ ​​Looking back,​ ​I​ ​regret​ ​leaving​ ​those​ ​special​ ​books​ ​behind.​ ​I​ ​ache​ ​when​ ​I​ ​think​ ​about​ ​them​ ​sitting untouched​ ​on​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​these​ ​days.​ ​​But​ ​that​ ​regret​ ​is​ ​seasoned​ ​with​ ​hope​ ​and​ ​the reassurance​ ​that​ ​we​ ​are​ ​growing​ ​our​ ​new​ ​library​ ​in​ ​our​ ​new​ ​home.​ ​​We​ ​are​ ​rebuilding, and together,​ ​​we​ ​are​ ​finding​ ​our​ ​way.

"Stellaluna​ ​was​ ​afraid,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​let​ ​go​ ​of​ ​the​ ​tree​ ​and​ ​dropped​ ​into​ ​the​ ​deep​ ​blue sky."​ ​​ ​​​​​
Stellaluna ​ ​by​ ​Janell​ ​Cannon


Julie Lehman is a Chicago native, who now lives in Iowa with her two children. “Ten Books” is her first published essay. In previous lives, she has been a human resources professional, a downtown revitalization advocate, and a farmer’s wife.  She has finally succumbed to her lifelong love of writing, and she derives great joy from sharing her thoughts and observations about the bittersweet complexity of life.

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Reading good books with children is one of the most rewarding and valuable things. You know that. It is obvious. I’m certain your children will remember and pass along that treasure in years to come. You are doing a good thing. Thank you for this wonderful essay.
What a testimony to the healing power of a few good books. Thank you Ms Lehman for sharing your painful yet ultimately uplifting story. May a suggest a second career in library science? Your could enrich many family's lives by sharing your love and passion for children's literature
This article represents only a small sampling of the depth of this womans nature. Julie has come full circle in life's cycle of blessings and horrors. And come out of it a better more fully formed human. Brava Julie!
I love this essay so much. Beautifully crafted and such a lovely reminder that hope is always close by. And often a shelf.
Julie, your essay resonated within me and touched nerves and memories of how special books brought me comfort and healing through rough times. Kudos and hugs to you. Please keep writing.b
Wow...loved the entire piece...i always knew you were a strong women..i can't wait for you to publish more
I enjoyed reading your essay Julie. Thank you for sharing.
This was just beautiful.
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