Although I spent the last few days reading Joan Didion
and David Maine
(loved them both), I have to be honest and say the best literary experience I had all weekend took place in my daughter's pink canvas playhouse. It's just large enough for two people to fit snuggly, and we have it permanently positioned above one of the heating vents in the living room, so it's like a wonderful little sauna. My daughter, Chloe, had stockpiled her favorite books into the sauna, and she invited me in (along with the cat and the pug) so we could do some reading. We read all of Horton Hatches the Egg
before she pulled from her stack her favorite series of all time: Junie B. Jones
Okay. A little on Junie B. Anybody who shares a home with a kindergarten-aged girl is probably also intimately acquainted with Junie B. Jones. She's your typical five-year-old protagonist, cute and endearing on a first read, but by the time you've progressed to, say, books ten and up in the series, all the books start to feel exactly the same to an adult reader. Chloe has been on her Junie B. Jones kick for about a year, and it must be said that a chapter a night of the same spunky five-year-old gets a little old. I can hardly handle my own five-year-old night after night. Frankly stated, if I have to read Junie B. Jones one more time, I'm sure I will vomit. I've been occasionally successful in getting her to read other books, but the number of non-Junie B. Jones chapter books we've read in the past year I can count on one hand (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Little House on the Prairie ? breaths of fresh air!). My husband and I have a tradition of taking both our kids downtown to Powell's and letting them pick out one used book to buy. Chloe always chooses one of the Junie B. series. If you've ever walked past the children's section in Powell's and overheard a desperate-sounding mother literally begging her child on both knees to choose a different book for heaven's sake, then you and I have crossed paths.
You'll understand, then, why this weekend in the playhouse/sauna, when Chloe pulled Junie B. Jones from a whole stack of perfectly good literary offerings, I finally posed the question: "Sweetie, why, exactly, do you like these books so much?" I wasn't expecting the answer she gave me. "I like that the book talks to me," she said. When I probed her further I realized that she really does have that exact experience with the book: not only is Junie B. Jones a fantastic first person narrator, she often veers into the realm of second person as well with little asides aimed straight at the reader. And she speaks just like a five-year-old would, rotten grammar and misguided word usage and all. My kindergartener had just summed up in one sentence the only honest way to answer the question about why we like to read good fiction, and how we choose the fiction we do: because it speaks to us. Because the characters draw us in. Because even though we know they aren't real, they almost are.
I promised her I'd stop griping about Junie B. Jones. And deep down, I'm thrilled that she has a love affair with books. I live with constant guilt that my love of both reading and writing often makes me ignore my kids. A few years back, some expert came out with a study that the more your kids see you reading on a daily basis, the more likely they are to do better in school and become readers themselves. I want to find whoever did that study and kiss them, hard. I use it as a daily excuse. When I let my kids watch three videos in a row so that I could finish Gilead last month, I was really doing it for them. It's a sacrifice, for sure. And when I set them up with something to play with "quietly, because Mommy's working," and cordon myself off in my office to get my writing fix for the day, I have to hope it does the same thing for them. I can't bear the thought of them growing up to resent the fact that I spent too much time in front of the computer, that I ignored them for my books.
This morning, from Chloe, a small gift: when I unzipped her backpack to toss in her weekly folder, I found a newspaper clipping. It was the story our local paper ran on my new book, next to the strange photo of me holding an umbrella, standing in the rain. She had carefully cut it out (a newly acquired kindergarten skill), folded it in half, then quietly slipped it into her backpack. When she saw that I discovered her secret, she smiled and said, "I want to show everyone in my class. I want to take your book, too." A strange feeling: my daughter is proud of me. Good luck getting a review that satisfying from the New York Times. I think I'll buy her another Junie B. Jones.