After a particularly hard day at school, my then nine-year-old son, Rory, forlornly and aptly announced, “I think I’m the boy Ramona.”
Rory is thirteen now, and he continues to turn to books and their characters for escape and solace as he sets out to slay the particular dragon that he and Beverly Cleary’s protagonist confront daily: school. Despite being a very bright kid with all sorts of strengths and talents, Rory has never felt successful in school. Like Ramona, Rory often seems to be the proverbial square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
Unlike Ramona, he’s a boy, biracial, has anything but a traditional nuclear family, and although he enjoys art, it’s reading, not drawing, that is his passion. Rory quite suddenly became an early expert reader at the end of kindergarten. One day he couldn’t read, and the next it was like a light switch went on and he could read just about anything. This served him well as a first grader, where he struggled as mightily as Ramona the Brave ever did to feel liked by his teacher and to meet her expectations.
“I just want to play! To read and to play,” he sobbed one night when he came home with a fat packet of math worksheets.
“Of course you do,” I told him. “You’re six.”
But something else was bothering Rory that day: the same precocious reading ability that enabled him to feel better about himself in school, despite his struggles with math and with social skills, had also made him privy to a four-letter word scrawled in a bathroom stall.
“Mom-mom, I read that word and I am just so worried I’m going to say it!”
“Well,” I said, perhaps taking a cue from the Quimbys, who famously gave a frustrated, angry Ramona permission to say a “bad word” as she vented about a rotten day in first grade of her own, “what would happen if you did say it, Rory?”
He was shocked. “You’d be mad?” he posited.
“Well, I wouldn’t want you to run around saying it just to be rude or mean, but, whatever it is, I think you should say the bad word now so it doesn’t seem so scary.”
Rory did not say guts (Ramona’s bad word of choice). Rory said fuck. He said it two more times, then burst into tears of relief.
“You see,” I told him. “It’s just a word.”
The next day I told Rory’s teacher about the graffiti, and she connected the dots and told me that Rory had been reluctant to go to the bathroom lately. I ached for him, scared to death by a word on a wall, on top of all of the other anxieties he was feeling, and I rethought the reassurance that I’d given him the day before: “It’s just a word.”
Words were, and are, everything to Rory. He delights in learning them, saying them, writing them, and hearing them, but mostly he revels in reading them, and it’s been one of my greatest pleasures as his mother to foster his reading life. For a time, though, I worried about the overpowering nature of books in his life.
Rory’s very first word was — no kidding — book. At about ten months old he began insistently blurting out “buh, buh, buh” while climbing up on my lap, and I like to think I set the stage for this auspicious piece of vocabulary acquisition when Rory was a newborn. My mother joked that he was the youngest member of Oprah’s Book Club when I, an earnest first-time mother determined to do everything just right, told her that I read aloud to him from novels while he was breastfeeding so that he’d be “exposed to rich language.”
Our shared reading, of course, included plenty of board-book and picture-book action in those baby days, too, and we started adding chapter books to the mix when he was in preschool. We kept reading together even after he was able to read by himself, not only for the comfortable ritual of bedtime reading but also for the closeness the time afforded us, especially as our family expanded to include first one, then two, then four younger siblings by the time Rory was nine.
By then, however, Rory had begun to assert more independence in his reading life than I was ready to accept. “Don’t you want to read with us?” I’d ask him while curling up with a stack of picture books or a read-aloud favorite like The House at Pooh Corner or The Animal Family to share with his younger brother and sisters at bedtime.
“I’d rather just read by myself,” or “I’ve already read that with you,” became his standard replies.
After all, he could read, and reread, much more quickly on his own, and his preferences were straying far from the sorts of books his siblings and I were apt to choose. Comics, graphic novels, and plot-driven fantasies were his literary cups of tea, and he drained the dregs and looked for more.
Notice I didn’t say asked for more. For years, and much to my chagrin, Rory rejected my eager book recommendations at the library, in bookstores, and combing through the shelves of our home.
“Read this,” I said, thrusting Louis Sachar’s Holes at him one day when he was ten. “You’ll love it.”
“It doesn’t look so good to me,” he replied. “I’m rereading the Warriors series now.”
“Rory, I do know what I’m talking about, you know. It’s sort of my job to know about good kids’ books,” I said, trying to assert the authority of my children’s literature professor status.
I should have known better.
“Mom-mom, you haven’t even finished Harry Potter five and I’ve already read book seven. Twice.”
He had me there. I hadn’t (and haven’t) finished the Harry Potter series. Nor have I read all (or in some cases, any) of the books in the other fantasy series that gripped Rory’s attention: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Suzanne Collins’s Underland Chronicles, Brian Jacques’s Redwall books, D. J. MacHale’s Pendragon series, and yes, Erin Hunter’s Warriors. Battling clans of talking cats? Really?!? Really.
Rory has read and reread the books in these series, and many others (including, I am happy to say, Holes), countless times. He can recite passages from favorite books from memory, and he recounts favorite lines at will—sometimes when a totally separate conversation is going on around him. This started to become troubling, especially when listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks seemed to take up a bit too much brain space — space where, perhaps, remembering to bring home books for assignments, or focusing on math, or even just finding his shoes in the morning might have come in handy.
“It’s like he’s so focused on the stories in his head that he can’t shift gears to get on top of everything else,” I said to his neuropsychologist when Rory was in third grade and we consulted him about Rory’s ongoing struggle to make sense of school despite IQ tests that revealed “overpowering intellectual abilities.”
“Most schools aren’t made for kids like Rory,” the doctor told me. “His brain is like a huge library, filled with passions, images, words, and ideas, but the library is completely disorganized and he can’t readily access its resources because the catalog is down and the librarian is on her lunch break.”
We set to work on a plan to get Rory’s metaphorical library back in order and to check in with that out-to-lunch librarian residing in his brain. But I told the doctor, “I want Rory to be Rory, and I want him to feel okay about the things that make him different.” Things like: developing a passion for reading The New Yorker at eight (mostly for the cartoons, true); or, by the same age, thinking that the NPR programs “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Car Talk” (along with Calvin and Hobbes and Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants) were the height of humor.
I wanted to help Rory function better, but I didn’t want him to lose his ability to become so consumed by his readings that the rest of the world around him became, to borrow the word he used to describe math class, “irrelevant.” Testing eventually resulted in a diagnosis of ADHD, though the disorder did not manifest itself in Rory with hyperactivity but with a checked-out, spacey way of being in the world much of the time. Often, this was related to his passion for reading. For example, during a parent-teacher conference in third grade, his teacher voiced concern about Rory’s penchant for “disappearing” from the classroom at random times during the day.
“He’ll just get up and leave without asking,” he explained.
Where did Rory go? To the library, of course.
“How is it that he can focus so deeply on books and retain their words and meanings, but he just can’t focus on things like directions and interactions in the real world?” I asked his doctor.
“Well, as hard as it is for him, right now, to navigate the outer world, think about what a rich inner world he has.”
Those words were balm to my weary, worried mother’s soul. As much as I valued Rory’s reading life and wanted him to retain the passion he had for books and stories, at that point I hadn’t thought of his reading life as an inner sanctuary from the confounding outer world that he faced every day where most kids were round pegs nestled snugly in round holes.
I recall the doctor’s words as I see the young man Rory is becoming. With the help of his teachers, doctors, and family, but mostly through his ability to turn inward and to reflect on who he is and who he wants to be in the world, Rory has made tremendous strides. Like any adolescent, he has bouts of angst, frustration, and self-doubt, but he’s really come into his own and is a keenly self-aware, insightful person.
As has always been true, his books have helped him gain insights into himself at this stage of his life. Inspired by Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rory began keeping a journal when he started middle school this year. He invited me to read the first entry months ago; it had as much to do with the books he was reading as it did with the self he described navigating his place in our blended family, his school, and in the life he imagines for himself in the future (possible vocations include editor, journalist, English professor, philosopher, and writer).
A month or so ago, Rory reread Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “That Arnold Spirit, he’s a really brave kid,” Rory said in passing one day.
I didn’t tell Rory how many connections I saw between him and Arnold, despite their wildly different biographies and respective sets of challenges in school and in life. But, I figured that if my “boy Ramona” could find himself in Cleary’s character, he could also probably find himself in Alexie’s. Rory’s a really brave kid, too, daring every day to be himself in a world where it might be easier in some ways to just cave and pretend not to be a kid whose favorite TV channel is the History Channel and whose passion for geography, manga, and languages has prompted him to try to teach himself Japanese and to declare himself an “aspiring Shinto.”
I think that he gets this strength, in part, because of that rich inner world of reading and rereading that he’s built for himself and that is populated by similarly quirky, bright, and sensitive kids. Kids like Arnold and Ramona, yes, but also like Harry Potter, Joey Pigza, Percy Jackson, George and Harold, and on and on.
And whether he grows up to be a philosopher, a writer, a Shinto priest, an editor, or an English professor like me, I know he will always be a reader.
From the May/June 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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