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Reading what they're reading

My nine-year-old grandson recently made a list of his favorite things. Number one was math. (He’s kind of a phenom.) Number two was reading.

First, I’m glad this boy loves math. I’m glad his parents toss him math questions at every whipstitch, and I’m glad he considers answering them fun.

When he was a preschooler, the whipstitch was a banana. “If I sliced a banana twelve times, how many pieces would I have?” his grandfather asked. That was challenging, and his father simplified it: “If you sliced a banana once, how many pieces will you have?” My grandson answered correctly, and continued to answer correctly as the imaginary banana was sliced eleven more times. Don’t ask me what mathematical principle this demonstrates; I’m the person who in fifth grade drew a map to scale, then whimsically added decorative trees and bushes. “Your trees are 1,000 feet across!” my teacher wrote across my work. That was when I learned that, on maps, everything counts.

Moving on to Favorite Thing 2: reading. Each of my three grandchildren loves reading with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Reading is what they do in and around and over and through their myriad activities. They breathe, therefore they read.

This can be exasperating for their parents. My younger daughter complains that her sons won’t budge from the car for twenty minutes after they return home from anywhere because they want to finish the paragraph, the page, the book they’re reading. She describes trying to hustle the boys out of the house on school mornings, only to watch them both dart away to grab books to read on the road. (The school is a scant mile from their house.) This same daughter recently texted about searching for her younger son’s flag football team at a sports park swarming with teams and playing fields while her older son trailed behind, reading while walking.

Meanwhile, my older daughter shares pictures of my granddaughter (she’s nine, too) reading en route to and from school, on boulders during family rock climbing expeditions, at camp sites and at restaurant tables. This is a girl who offers to lend me any book I dip into at her house. That’s how I came to read Detective Gordon: A Case for Buffy, the late Ulf Nilsson’s final book about the tea-drinking toad and his woodland colleagues. I’d already borrowed and returned Amy Timberlake’s second Skunk and Badger story, Egg Marks the Spot. Hilarious books about intelligent animals (Gordon and his team keep their only gun locked up because they’ll never use it) are as much my jam as hers.

When I’m around at mealtimes, all three grandchildren beg me to read aloud, then forget to take bites. On their own — say, when they’re eating breakfast and if they don’t leave the house in two minutes they’ll be late to school — their hands move stealthily across the table to their waiting books like thieves creeping up on the bullion.

And, of course, they each have teeny lights near their beds to facilitate illicit after lights-out reading.

All this written-word appreciation was encouraged and promoted mostly by their parents, whose houses were filled with books even before kids lived there. Now their bookshelves overflow with children’s books, too; library books are chosen by the crate, and each child’s first library card was celebrated like a sixteen-year-old celebrates a driver’s license. My habit of bringing bags of books with me every time I visit didn’t encourage a love of reading so much as it acknowledged the love that already was there.

Now our routine has changed. I still read with the grandchildren, of course, but my reading now is shaped by their own choices, which cover a lot of territory. I recently spent an outdoor afternoon reading Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse books to my younger grandson. Who can fathom a six-year-old’s interest in the amusing travails of a middle school girl, or rather, mouse? He likes the humor, I guess. He likes the graphics, the exchanges between Babymouse and the unseen narrator. He just...likes them.

That they “just...like them” may explain all of these kids’ wide-ranging book choices. They read fiction and nonfiction, Captain Underpants and Percy Jackson, the Penderwicks and Zita the Spacegirl, Raina Telgemeier and Jason Reynolds and biographies and graphic novels about dragons and monsters and trolls and being deaf. If they haven’t realized it yet, they will: As with maps, everything counts.

I’m grateful to read books borrowed from my grandchildren. I’m interested in the stories that have made their way into their heads. I read their books because what makes them laugh will almost certainly make me laugh, give or take a poop joke or two. I read their books because after spending hours on library floors, searching for stories that would amuse or rivet them, it’s a sweet return of my small part in the investment.

And also, of course, because now I know what they’re talking about when they say, “Important Rock Work!”*


[*Read Skunk and Badger, if you don't know.] 

Margo Bartlett
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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