Our daughter talked early and walked late and was a lover of books even before she could talk. So it is not always easy to reconstruct the chronology of her enthusiasms for the stories we read to her and the make-believe they inspired, especially now that she is a few years older than her mother and I were at her birth. The difficulty has not deterred us: “Storytime” has become a story in itself for our family, a mythology all our own, though the telling calls up emotions any aging parent might claim.
The title we tend to put first after once-upon-a-time is Sandra Boynton’s rhyming board book Moo, Baa, La La La! If not Sarah’s first book, it was one of the first to prompt an audible response. There’s a point in Boynton’s running catalog of animal sounds when the author mixes it up a bit by having three singing pigs say “La La La!” followed by a “No, no” attributed to the listening child along with a correction to “oink.” Sarah was soon saying “no, no” on her own behalf, and before she had words was responding to the book’s closing question—“What do you say?”—with a babble of D-laced syllables that pleasantly resembled an attempt to say “dad.”
Later, but not much later, after Sarah had developed a sense of mischief, she delighted in correcting my pronunciation of “aunt” whenever I read Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, correcting me again when I adjusted the vowel as per her initial correction. This would go on until I pretended to be beside myself and she burst out laughing. We still laugh when we recall the game today.
The world felt right when we read together; whatever else I may have forgotten since then, my memory here is solid. We were at once awake and at rest, consciously in our living room, yet transported to different times and places, as reading is known to do. When I picture us back then, the first thing I see is my daughter’s pajama-encased feet stretched out beside me, well short of the edge of the couch. Often I had taken a brief nap there after coming home from a day’s teaching, collapsing till the Excedrin kicked in. Once storytime concluded and bedtime prayers were said, I’d be facing hours of correcting papers and getting ready for the next day. So it was an oasis for me to read The Runaway Bunny and be something of a runaway bunny myself, though I was too old, or maybe I should say still too callow, to give myself completely to the moment. My mind sometimes wandered as I read. I yawned. There were nights when I happily left the task to my wife.
I had my own favorites among my daughter’s books; I’ve already named a few. I loved those opening lines of Home for a Bunny (Margaret Wise Brown’s companion to the bunny who runs away), where after the birds and frogs take their turns shouting “Spring, Spring, Spring!” the narrator matter-of-factly announces: “It was spring.” I could imagine Beckett making the same verbal move, or a Zen monk achieving satori the first time he heard it. Henny Youngman, deadpan, using it to close a joke. “I guess it was spring.” Beat. “Were we talkin’ about somethin’ else?”
I was also fond of Gene Zion’s Harry the Dirty Dog, partly out of nostalgia—the book was published three years after I was born and looks its age with the ladies in pillbox hats in the restaurant and smoke rising from steam shovels on the paisano-peopled construction site. And that beautiful moment of anagnorisis, a device as old as Aeschylus, when enough dirt is scrubbed from Harry’s hide for him to be recognizable to his family. “It’s Harry!” they exclaim, and Sarah would say it with them. We thrilled to a similar revelation when Sarah’s runaway hamster, Harvey, returned unexpectedly to his tank. Assuming him lost or eaten, we were reading a bedtime story with heavy hearts when the alleluia of his exercise wheel sounded from the room overhead. “It’s Harvey!”—an early, happy resonance of literature with life.
Mostly what we loved about Harry, though, was his sheer pleasure in being Harry, and a dog, and a dirty dog at that. The best illustrators know how to convey that kind of delight—as when Cooney shows Miss Rumphius closing her eyes and raising her chin to inhale the scent of the flowers in the conservatory. We Americans affect to be a hedonistic lot, often with more frenzy than comprehension. Titillation we get—distraction, novelty, and addiction—but I wonder how much we understand of genuine pleasure or how often we impart its value to our children. Even when we extol the virtues of reading aloud, our focus tends to be on its utilitarian aspects, on language-building and school readiness, on teaching kids to sit still and attend. Harry and Miss Rumphius know better what the world is for. If only I’d taken more time in my compulsively productive life to model their wisdom for my daughter.
Francis Bacon famously said that a man with children has given hostages to fortune; he might also have said that a man with children has bought shares in regret. So much to get wrong when you have a kid, so little time to make it right. Regrets can also come from being childless, I know, but are less freighted with guilt. Should the Angel of Death ever come to me in the guise of Sandra Boynton and her three singing pigs—“It’s quiet now (and will soon be quieter still). What do you say?”—what I’ll say is that I screwed up left and right in my life, but I’ll never regret reading to my kid.
Only lately has it impressed me that Harry is a dog and that the runaway bunny is a bunny. In other words, I’ve only lately wondered why so much of children’s literature is about animals, the same being true for fables and myths. I’m not sure the human race has ever completely gotten its head around inhabiting a world with living creatures both like and unlike us. Imagine a young child getting her head around the same thing. There are grown-ups and babies—and doggies too. And in books there are other animals besides, elephants and giraffes. What an amazing world!
Recently I revisited Peter Spier’s Noah’s Ark, another of the books Sarah enjoyed. Here again are the omnipresent animals; Noah takes two of each aboard the ark. But why two and not three, and why does the Earth have to be flooded in the first place—how all of this must have boggled Sarah’s mind. There is zoology in these pages and theology, too, but what strikes me most when I think back to the first books we read is their epistemology, their evocation of those elemental questions: What do we know and how do we know it?
A case in point is Sally Wittman’s sweet if somewhat improbable story, A Special Trade. A little girl named Nelly is taken for a daily ride in her stroller by her elderly neighbor Bartholomew. Later, when Bartholomew grows decrepit, they reverse roles, and Nelly, older now, pushes her friend around the neighborhood in his wheelchair. It’s a simple story, much enhanced by Karen Gundersheimer’s endearing illustrations—yet when I think of Sarah hearing it for the first time, I marvel at what must have gone through her head. So many concepts in a few pages: that people age, that generations reverse roles, that the transient is forever doing its dance with what abides.
Sarah’s grandparents were alive then, so she had reference points for Bartholomew, though these elders could not have seemed very different from her parents, just grown-ups, people bigger than she. Perhaps in a child’s mind old and young are merely synonyms for big and small. I remember a weekend when Sarah’s maternal grandparents drove to our house with one of her great-aunts, a small, wizened woman with a long-time smoker’s raspy voice. While the adults were talking round the table, Sarah leaned toward her mother and whispered, “Mama, that little girl didn’t finish her supper.” Apparently size sufficed to make them contemporaries (that, and the food left on their plates). But with Bartholomew in his wheelchair, with disability effected in the space of only a few pages, did Sarah glimpse the unsettling truth that people are not always going to be as they are? Did she generalize these concepts enough to realize that even her parents would grow old, that the time might come, though it has not come yet, when decrepitude might require that she read to them?
What some perceive that others cannot is treated in Ashley Wolff’s Only the Cat Saw. A farm family with a cat goes through its day, but when night falls the cat witnesses things the family doesn’t see, and other things only one of its members sees. As with Spier’s book on Noah, a refreshing materiality informs the book’s vivid illustrations. There’s dung on Spier’s ark, and in the farmhouse a little girl uses the toilet in the night and a mother dreamily nurses her baby son. Outside, an owl swoops down to seize a mouse. Sarah happened to live in a rural area in an old farmhouse with a father who occasionally brought home fresh-caught trout for dinner and took her with him as soon as she could hold a pole, so she knew some aspects of the material world that her urban counterpart might not. But the notion that a cat sees what others can’t, that vision varies from eye to eye and circumstance to circumstance—how that must have fascinated her. And here is her Social Security–eligible father trying to imagine what she saw in what the cat saw and what else the story helped her to see.
Her mother has a better sense of those things than I. Kathy worked many years as a speech-language pathologist for preschoolers and recently told me of a game sometimes used to test young children for “theory of mind,” the awareness of other points of view linked inextricably to the development of language. The therapist produces a small toy bear and a ball small enough for the bear to play with. The bear loves this ball. But he has to leave for lunch and puts his ball into a box. “Let’s play a trick on the bear,” the therapist says, and she and the child hide the ball in a different place. Then the bear returns. “Where is the bear going to look for his ball?” the child is asked. Children with a sense of the bear’s mind will point to the box where the bear left his ball. Children with a weaker sense of the bear’s mind will point to the place where the ball presently is. They haven’t yet grasped that the bear doesn’t know what we know.
And then, if the therapist is not as tenderhearted as my wife in calling time on a practical joke, you have the poor bear searching frantically for his ball, wondering why it isn’t where he left it and who might have taken it away. There is that epistemology too, and mercifully most children’s books leave it alone; that is, they leave the knowledge of meanness to the place where it often gets taught, along with spelling and math. For a few years of fragile innocence, Bartholomew is not suspected of pedophilia, and Nelly does not forget his former kindness and give his wheelchair a vicious kick to impress her new friends. There is, however, a picture inside the front cover of Spier’s book depicting a burning mud-brick city and its sackers marching out with their spoils while, a few pages beyond, Noah gathers up the rabbits, pigs, and bears to save them from such violence and from the disaster to come.
“Will Bernard ever be good?” I can remember when Sarah asked the question and the place where she asked it. We were walking down our dirt road, muddy from the spring snowmelt, and I’d just held her up to touch a drop of sap oozing from a tap stabbed in a giant maple’s trunk. I remember her red rubber boots grazing my pant legs, and the gentle tentativeness of her index finger, as if she’d been invited to touch a baby animal’s nose. The question had come out of the blue. And it moved me because it went to the heart of my own deeper musings and because it had come without prompting, evidence that the books we read were becoming part of her waking thoughts.
Bernard was one of Alfie’s friends in a book called Alfie Gives a Hand, by Shirley Hughes. The Alfie books were much beloved in our household at the time. In this one, Bernard has a birthday and Alfie is invited to the party, his first. It may also be his first encounter with aggressively bad behavior. Bernard is a little terror, scaring his guests, scattering their presents, and literally bursting their bubbles, though his ineffectual mother expresses the hope that someday her son will be more helpful, as our hero, Alfie, is. Sarah was questioning that hope.
I answered with a tentative “probably,” wondering if I was being honest with my kid. My hunch was that Bernard would be the same little shit at forty that he was at four. The parent’s old conundrum, another chance at regret: Would you rather raise a distrustful misanthrope or a lamb for the slaughter? Preferably something in the middle, wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove—though a kid like Bernard can usually find a way to kill either one, and the slower the better.
The books we read were much more likely to convey the beatific than the wicked, and I’m glad of that. Even when malice showed its face, as in John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, kindness triumphed in the end. What some of the books did remarkably well, better than most self-help books for adults, is convey the necessity of sacrifice. In Charlotte’s Web, for example, the spider mother dies to give life; and in Donald Hall’s Ox-Cart Man a farmer takes his homemade wares to market in an ox cart and then, once the wares are sold, sells the cart and the ox as well, bestowing a goodbye kiss on the ox’s nose. The impression of that ambiguous kiss upon our daughter, its mix of fondness and betrayal, was almost palpable whenever we came to the page. It was enough of the hard stuff for her to sample at the time.
What the books also did was suggest the possibility that one can be a bit naughty without necessarily being mean. That transgression is possible without cruelty. So there was Madeline and the Bad Hat, the latter of whom was not so much wicked as mischievous, and in fact a welcome antidote to the regulated, rhyming-couplet world in which uniformed convent girls lined up “in two straight lines.” A delicious badness enlivened Barbro Lindgren’s The Wild Baby and Chris Van Allsburg’s Two Bad Ants and of course dear dirty Harry. Children relish these characters, and I suspect they like them more the less naughty they themselves happen to be. Quite early on we detected a sense of the alter ego in our daughter and in the books she enjoyed, a sense that would find expression in an imaginary friend named Terry, who Sarah claimed was one of her sons. He did not take after his mother. Sarah was always a picky eater, on the lower percentiles of the pediatrician’s weight chart; Terry was a little Falstaff of boundless appetite. Her first encounters with arithmetic were not propitious, but Terry was an ace at math. Sarah never went to summer camp or wanted to, but Terry couldn’t wait for his yearly stint at B.B.B.B. (Big Bad Bright Boys) Camp. A novelist friend of ours, much captivated by Terry’s shenanigans, was always keen to ask Sarah, “What’s Terry been up to lately?” On a cross-country book tour, he sent her a postcard from Walla Walla State Penitentiary, signed by Terry himself, who was having a high old time with the other inmates and, in keeping with convention, wishing we were there.
Sarah was in school by then and thus old enough to know what prison is. Which is not to knock school, a doorway to other books and to the precious autonomy that allowed her to read on her own. But once the homework came and the cliques began to form, school was a major impediment to bedtime reading and to any book-fostered notions of the world as a benevolent place.
We crossed a threshold when that novelist friend and his wife gave Sarah a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. Their children had adored the Little House books, but Kathy and I had never read them or watched the TV show, so we were as new to the story as our daughter was. It was an immediate hit.
We followed soon thereafter with Little House on the Prairie, and in time with all the other books in the series. I’m not completely sure what accounted for their enormous appeal, though some of it must have owed to the evocation of a world at once strange and familiar. Like little Laura Ingalls, Sarah also saw bears and heard coyotes howling in the distance. One of her earliest extemporaneous bedtime prayers contained the curious petition, “Keep all the wolves in the forest,” and I wonder if this was inspired by her reading or by what she may have heard some summer night. The author’s penchant for describing various processes, from casting bullets to making bread, must also have echoed the arts-and-crafts experiences that were part of Sarah’s home life and eventual schooling. And there was Jack “the brindle bulldog,” and Sarah also had a dog, both given to making a commotion when strangers showed up at the house, whether armed with tomahawks or tracts about the end of the world. Jack’s seemingly miraculous reappearance after the Ingallses assume him drowned in a perilous river crossing counts as one of the most memorable passages in anything we read.
I know parents with strong reservations about exposing their children to Wilder’s pioneer prejudices and libertarian ethos—to indigenous Americans who don’t take up pages with long speeches about soaring eagles and the nobleness of recycling—but I set great store by what Milton says about the shortfalls of “a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” We figured that with her parents to guide her, to insert a question now and then about why the Indians would have been so upset, our daughter would stay on the right side of history. Still, I wonder if I did enough of that. The shoemaker’s kids are said to go barefoot, and it may be that a pedagogue’s kids go short on teachable moments, especially if the pedagogue is tired at the end of the day and sick unto death of treating every work of literature as a thing to dissect.
It also seemed to us that the books contained plenty of salutary material by way of compensation. Little Laura rebels almost from toddlerhood against ladylike conventions of behavior and as a betrothed young woman expresses her repugnance for any vow that would oblige her to obey a man. Not once but twice the Ingallses are rescued by a person of color: by an Osage chief who turns an understandably irate group of hostile warriors away from their cabin, and then by an itinerant African American doctor who shows up when the entire family is laid low by “fever ’n’ ague.” Where he came from, how he came to be a doctor in nineteenth-century America, what he was doing out on the Great Plains, and why he put his own health at risk to nurse a hovel full of sick white folks back to health—all mysteries that “only the cat saw,” and only if the doctor had a cat.
Maybe the best children’s books are those that find their way into child’s play, the way that ancient myths found their way into rituals and then later, with the development of a written language, into literary works. For Sarah the smallest details of Wilder’s imagery could become the pretext for make-believe. “Dah, pretend you’re a donkey and you got your harness off but you can’t get the feeling off,” she said one day, and it took me a moment to recognize the source of her request. I duly rubbed my head and shoulders on our living-room carpet to remove the irritations of the phantom harness while my daughter patted me sympathetically and cooed, “Oh, you little donkey.”
This was not the only story that made its way into play. When Winnie the Pooh was in vogue, we could scarcely take a walk in the woods without Sarah wanting us to identify the homes of Piglet, Rabbit, and Tigger. As a two-year-old she was greatly taken with a book about the Nativity story and once surprised the bookstore proprietor’s husband, who’d innocently asked the name of a cue-ball-headed doll clutched in her hand, by responding “Jesus.” She swaddled “Jesus” in a handkerchief and placed him in a Kleenex box, taking him out for occasional journeys into Egypt atop a rocking horse and also for regular feedings. Like the fellow who met Jesus in the bookstore, my father did a double take to see his granddaughter demurely raise her T-shirt to suckle her son, though at intervals Jesus was a she. For a while, like some pre-Nicene heresy, there were actually two Jesuses. Every so often one would get lost and we’d have to search for him. It’s possible the Wild Baby influenced Sarah’s Christology, for she announced one day that Jesus had taken off on roller skates and Mary had to run after him.
We had decided, my wife and I, to spare Sarah the Santa stuff, not because we disapproved of the figure himself or were aiming for some kind of puritanical Christmas but because we were determined to avoid the inevitable disillusionment that would come, and that we both remembered from our own childhoods, when the child learns that Santa Claus does not exist. So we told Sarah straight off that he didn’t. Instead we focused on the story of the First Christmas and on her obvious affection for it. In spite of our best intentions, the dominant culture washed over us; even people at our church asked Sarah what Santa was going to bring. We soon surrendered, and our daughter was left to reckon with the discovery that her parents had knowingly deceived her. Like the bear used to test theory of mind, she had been tricked, and so—I’ll believe till I die—had we.
For all the stories we read aloud we made up almost as many on our own, often to pass the time on our longer drives. Kathy and I took turns narrating the adventures of Space Nanny, a robotic governess whose job it was to tend the children of intergalactic travelers and invent various ingenious technologies to serve their peculiar whims, often whims that mirrored our daughter’s. The device that kept the bed pillow cool, for example, or the contraption that adjusted the bathroom door to leave the optimum sliver of night-light. The story itself came in response to a whim, to Sarah’s improvement on Aristotle, according to which the ideal plot is comprised of a beginning, a middle, an end—and a baby. My specialty was Rose the Granite Girl, a Neolithic child who refused to eat meat unless it was charred to a cinder, a parody of another girl we knew who would take no meat from the grill unless the “crisp bits” were removed. The cave-girl stories were prehistoric in more ways than one, dating from the days when I’d be called upon to relieve my wife by taking our voluble preschooler on a mammoth hunt in the field across our road. I recall the unusual hush as we waited breathlessly at the edge of the woods for a prowling saber-toothed tiger to pass through the uncut hay.
Not surprisingly, given her love of stories and her teacher-daddy’s summer sideline, Sarah was soon authoring her own fiction. Before she was able to write, she was dictating stories for us to transcribe in pocket-sized spiral notebooks, all of them concerning a family with the surname Pharmacis (almost certainly derived from her grandpa Walt, who worked in a drugstore). Mr. and Mrs. Pharmacis were a fertile couple with a number of pets—not as many as Noah, but enough to keep the place hopping. The woman of the house was a long-suffering drudge named Sue, who divided her time between a demanding job outside the home and a prodigious regimen of breastfeeding. Her husband, Richard, was a clueless ne’er-do-well who spent much of his time wandering about the house muttering non sequiturs. I was assured then, and have repeatedly been assured since, that I was not the model for Richard, and while I can hope he was my opposite in the same way as Terry was my daughter’s, I’ve always had my doubts.
Sarah and I reminisced about Richard, Rose, and Space Nanny on a recent excursion we took to Malone, New York, to visit the birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, Laura Ingalls’s husband and the protagonist of her novel Farmer Boy. We’d often talked about making the trip someday but had never gotten around to it in her childhood. Sarah’s fiancé and mother were both at work, so it was just the two of us crossing Lake Champlain on the ferry. The waters felt like a symbolic divide between present and past, Almanzo’s past and our past too, the trip itself like a parable of parenthood and all its unsolved dilemmas. Were we making our pilgrimage at just the right time, or would it have meant a lot more in Sarah’s childhood?
The lake was not infested with pirates as it would have been in the days when a treehouse served as our corsair, but we were conscious of their peg-leg ghosts all the same. “Remember prts?” Sarah said, pronouncing the word as she had spelled it in the journal she was required to keep in third grade. I’m sure we played at pirates years before I read her Treasure Island, though games of pretend and the stories we read and contrived were always dancing in a ring of mutual influence around us, not least of all when we were on the road.
I knew that sometime during our nostalgic journey Sarah would bring up the “Anna and Timmy stories,” an extemporaneous saga I began telling around the same time as she started school. Anna and Timmy were orphans befriended by an old sea dog named Ned. It was possible his enemies were behind their parents’ disappearance. When on land, Ned kept company with a charming tavern wench who looked after the children and assisted Ned in his battles with the Jolly Roger bunch. Beyond those details our memories get fuzzy. I believe Ned and the barmaid eventually got married; I forget if Anna and Timmy’s parents were ever found.
The story reached its apogee on a vacation we took to Maine, land of Island Boy and Blueberries for Sal. I would work on each episode in my head, jotting a few notes as we walked by the rocky seashore or lined up for ice cream cones in town, and then tell it by a blazing fireplace in the darkened cabin. Both Kathy and Sarah are convinced that if I’d written the stories down I could have published them to great acclaim. I did intend to write them down, but as often happens with parental intentions, other concerns kept getting in the way.
And so these stories became a household legend: the matchless tales Dad told us once upon a time but never got around to writing down, the lost treasure that could have brought him fortune and fame. I have no illusions about that, but I do wonder whether my failure to give the stories a written form was an instance of wisdom or neglect. As in: Are you glad you caught your child’s first steps on video, or do you wish you’d put the camera down and clapped instead? Was I the sort of father who had plenty of time to write every sort of screed for other people but not to record a story dear to his child’s heart? Or was I for once able to resist the compulsion to preserve experience, to view my every inspiration as a resource to exploit? I tend to believe the first interpretation, I much prefer the second, but either way I continue to hope that Anna and Timmy will come back to us some night, like Jack the brindle bulldog creeping out of the darkness into the light of the Ingallses’ fire.