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A big place to run and play

My husband recently took a picture of me reading to our five-year-old granddaughter. He takes such pictures often; his phone holds dozens of photos of our granddaughter and me behind a variety of books. On this occasion, he caught us at an exciting point of the narrative. My granddaughter’s eyes are transfixed and her hands are frozen, fingertips touching. She is completely caught up.

I love this girl’s visceral response to stories. Give her a few years, and I predict she’ll look just like this when she’s reading the titular scene of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Or David Benioff’s City of Thieves or The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow. That’s the book I was reading years ago while my own daughters cavorted in the city swimming pool. One moment I was sitting on my towel, reading and following my daughters’ bobbing heads, and the next the book’s main character was plunged into a tragedy so horrific I had the sensation of the sun actually blacking out. The endless cries of “Marco!” “Polo!” faded as if the volume had been turned down. I heard nothing but a rushing sound in my ears; the world narrowed to just the story before my eyes. The experience was oddly like sleep paralysis, the feeling of being awake but unable to move. In this case, though, for the space of several paragraphs, I existed more in the story I was reading than I did there on the warm concrete next to the pool.

My granddaughter’s emotional response also reminds me of her mother, whose reaction to certain books of her childhood and adolescence was no less dramatic. (One young adult novel about drug addiction wound up under her bed after my daughter flung it away in a panic. She and I agreed we’d leave the book there for a while, to show it who was boss.)

The book I was reading to my granddaughter was Eli, one of thirty-some books written and illustrated by Bill Peet, who also did storyboards for several Disney movies. Eli, an elderly, bad-tempered lion, is doomed to be taken down by younger, faster predators until he befriends a flock of vultures. Carrion eaters and decrepit lions are not what come to mind when you think “Disney illustrator,” but Eli is a sweet old thing. He grows on you. At the book’s most suspenseful moment, Eli is losing a race for his life, and my granddaughter almost needed a knotted towel to bite on. How I adore that girl.

Here’s someone else I adore: My grandson and his school heritage project.

This boy and other children in his kindergarten class had been assigned homework: To describe, in pictures and words, a family tradition. Most of the kids, his mother told me, chose traditions along the lines of “Our Trip to the Zoo,” “My Family Celebrates Christmas,” or “My Birthday Party at the Science Museum.” My grandson might have chosen a similar topic, but he didn’t. He chose the reading we do together.

Here is his report in its entirety: “I love reading books. I love Grandma Margo. I love their farm. It has a big place to play.” (Here he crossed out “play” and wrote “run.”) “I feel good when I’m reading books. Grandma Margo is a good grandma to me, my brother and my cousin.”

This report was accompanied by several pictures of all of us reading, the kids piled around me like puppies. In each photo I’m holding a book while they lean in. In one picture, they’re laughing hyena-style.

When I learned about my grandson’s report, I was so filled with amazement and gratitude as to be both open-mouthed and silent. Dwelling on it seemed risky, as if it might evaporate if I examined it too closely. That he chose our reading sessions out of all the traditions he and his family share reminded me of a moment, decades ago. My sister and I, both of us teenagers, were sunbathing in our backyard, faces up to the rays that were not yet known to be poisonous. When my sister said my name, I opened my eyes to see a robin perched on my right forearm.

The robin flew off eventually, but it took its time, lingering long enough to seal the tactile memory of its stick-like feet planted so implausibly on my skin. That’s how “I love reading books” feels in what’s probably my hippocampus. It’s all but weightless, and yet it carries so much that is meaningful and real.

I’m grateful it’s there. Now, just as I can return to those moments by the pool with Harriette Arnow’s book, when the sun telescoped to a tiny bright dot and disappeared while a fictitious child suffered and died, so I can remember this boy’s kindergarten project whenever I need to feel the sun shining again.

Reading. It’s a big place to play. I mean run.

Margo Bartlett About Margo Bartlett

Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.

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Comments

  1. People says, if you don’t have enough money to travel the world than read books. In this post you just make this point. Thanks for nice post.

  2. Margo Bartlett says:

    Thanks, Carol! You’re absolutely right … and not only can books take you anywhere, you can return to places you love again and again.

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