Justin Cronin on Book with Thumb
Ten years, the whole of my thirties: the decade in which I married, became a father,
grew up. Like most writers, I read a lot of books, and I have loved my share.
But to be the parent of small children is to think of books differently than you
used to, back when reading a book was something you did by yourself, in silence.
Corny stuff, but true: Parents are the messengers, the handmaidens of our children's
first encounters with the pleasures of story. It's a duty, like doing the dishes,
but a happy one. We do the funny voices, we see the jokes a page away and try
to time them right, we sometimes actually fall asleep mid-sentence and somehow
soldier on. What I mean is, these days, when I read a book, I don't just read
a book: I read a book.
My infant son still thinks books are delicious, something to suck till the
cardboard melts. But my seven-year-old daughter, Iris, is the literary consumer
every writer longs for. She gives herself completely to virtually any kind of
story, and has since she was just a year. She also possesses the negotiating
skills of Madeleine Albright. Trying to disengage her from a book is like trying
to shut down a nuclear power plant. By the time you've done all the paperwork,
it's already morning.
So, I'll take the question literally. My most memorable reading experience
of the last ten years occurred on a night, about two years ago, when I was reading
to Iris from a book I loved as a kid, Freddy and the Ignormus.
Perhaps you don't know Freddy and the Ignormus, the eighth in the series
of twenty-six Freddy books written by Walter
R. Brooks between 1927 and 1958. The main character of the series is the
eponymous Freddy, a pig who resides on an upstate New York farm. In addition
to being a pig, he is also a poet, a detective, a newspaperman, a banker, a
politician, and a pilot. His friends include the sarcastic cat Jinx, the gasbag
rooster Charles, a couple of spinster cows, Jock the collie dog, and a family
of fusty ducks. His archenemy is Simon, a rat. In my rendition, Simon speaks
with a sinister lisp.
Brooks's books don't possess the emotional sophistication of Harry
Potter, or the allegorical substrata of the Chronicles
of Narnia, or the lyricism of E.
B. White. If anything, they read like Punch and Judy in the barnyard. The
plots are completely anarchic, the story is frequently put aside for chatty
tangents, the animals snipe at each other like children on a rainy day, and
because it's the 1930s, there's a lot of smoking (the humans, not the animals).
Brooks was, among other things, a writer for the New Yorker (one of his
short stories became the basis for the television show Mr. Ed) , and
you get the feeling he wrote the Freddy books fast, on the side. You can hear
him saying, "I don't know why, but children seem to like them."
Perhaps it's their unstudied quality that makes them so good, in the same
way that a 1970s garage band somehow sounds better, purer, than most of the
overproduced rock and roll you hear these days. No Freddy action-figures or
Happy Meal marketing tie-ins are forthcoming. No one's going to make a movie
of Freddy Goes Camping or Freddy Goes to Florida, and they don't need to. For
those of us who love the pig, Brooks's books are the whole meal, appetizer to
So there we were, dad and daughter, snuggled down at bedtime, Iris's hair
still wet from the bath, her thumb finding its forbidden way to her mouth as
I turned the pages. The thumb is an issue: she's supposed to give it up, but
can't quite. Not during Freddy
And I was, I confess, tired; my thoughts and eyes were wandering. I misread
a sentence, then another, and as I had done when she was very small, I scanned
ahead and realized I could drop a couple of lines and hustle the evening along
Iris stopped me with a nudge. "You didn't read it right," she said.
"What are you talking about?"
"You skipped a sentence." She pulled her thumb from her mouth and pointed
to the page. "That's not what it said."
She had me dead to rights. More than that: I'd always thought she was listening,
not reading. I felt like a shoplifter who, looking up, finds a video camera
pointed right at him.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"A while." She shrugged. "All the time, actually. You always skip the smoking
parts, you know."
"You've been reading the whole time," I said.
"Sure." She gave a cagey smile and pulled the covers tighter. "But I like
it better this way."
Me too, I thought, and felt how swiftly time moves. Me too.
About Justin Cronin
Born and raised in New England, Justin Cronin is a graduate of Harvard University
and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Awards for his fiction include the Stephen Crane
Prize, a Whiting Writers' Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He is a professor
of English at Rice University and lives with his wife and children in Houston,