Part 2 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is poet and playwright Shannon Bramer, who writes candidly about her struggle with postpartum depression, and the books that pulled her through.
I read a lot when I was breastfeeding and I confess that was one of my favourite aspects of that time-consuming and sometimes exhausting act. Just let me hook the kid up and find my book. Please, sweetheart, stay asleep so I can keep reading! I was not the most social new mother. I was a sad, tired, cranky thing, really. For the first six months of Sadie’s life I hungered for deep sleep and sought comfort in Seinfeld re-runs, the novels of Haruki Murakami and the music of Ron Sexsmith. Most of the time I wanted to be alone eating noodle soup somewhere in Tokyo. Sometimes I hoped Ron or Jerry would come lie with me in a frozen drift of snow.
We had the black and white books going right off the bat, but I started reading stories to Sadie with regularity when she was four months old. Every night we would switch off lights in the house together and then lie on our bed with three chubby little classics: Big Red Barn, Good Night Gorilla and Time for Bed. As the months went by we read more and more. As soon as Sadie could sit up on her own we had a regular routine of reading books in the morning and then again later in the afternoon. Often we’d read right after feeding, so the two acts became linked for us both. I still wasn’t up for much socializing with other parents, but I was getting out more often. I took Sadie for long walks in the sling or stroller and we always stopped off to read. I had a favourite cafe—Caffe 163 on Lauder Street (just off of St.Clair West), owned by a reticent, tattooed, Italian barista named Louie. It became our cafe, and a daily event, “going to Louie’s to read”. At Lou’s I could enjoy a coffee and the company of other adults (briefly and from a distance) and make my way through a nice stack of library books with Sadie. And when I needed to, I would whip out my boob and Sadie would have a snack, right there in the cafe. Tip: larger, hardcover picture books like Babar and Eloise make for just the right amount of privacy if you don’t mind feeding your baby in public.
Before having children I worked as a bookseller, and I had been collecting children’s books for a decade. Sometimes I think I had my first child just so I could share my pretty books with her. Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden would have to wait a bit, but I already had other treats in mind, like Quentin Blake’s magnificent, heartbreaking Clown, and Jan Ormerod’s Sunshine and Moonlight books, which Sadie still enjoys and tugs off the shelf regularly. Both Ormerod and Blake have a talent for balancing stillness and movement in their illustrations; sometimes the images are so tender and lovingly imagined you can’t help but want to climb inside the book and stay there.
A few of my obsessions became Sadie’s: My Very First Mother Goose Book, edited by Peter and Ilona Opie (illustrated by Rosemary Wells) was read over and over again, as was as an illustrated (Jan Ormerod, again!) anthology of poems entitled Sunflakes, which Sadie renamed Poemflakes. At this point I had become little more than her reading slave, and if Sadie wanted poems read to her in the bathtub, I read them. I had created a monster, but she was my monster, and one who knew how to turn the thinnest pages thoughtfully and skillfully, even with her goopy little fingers.
For many months after Sadie first learned to talk the first words out of her mouth in the morning were: “Books! Books! Books! Read! Read! Read!” On good days and bad, I’d be confronted with her sparkling, alert, somewhat demonic (!?) blue eyes at 5:45am, ready to read, read, read—ready to start her day. At 22 months we continued to read together with enthusiasm but my boobs, as Sadie put it, were “struggling along”. Feedings had decreased and my milk supply was dropping. There was only one morning feed left and I was more than ready to let it go. So, instead of offering Sadie milk in the morning, I suggested a new book. And whenever she felt sick or upset or needed comforting, a book almost always worked. And it worked for me too, when I didn’t know what else to do with my little blonde monkey—when I was tired, or cranky, hoarse from yelling or my secret crying—reading to Sadie always made me feel like I was doing a good job as a mother. Reading always calmed me down and reminded me that even if I was struggling with depression during the first few years of Sadie’s life, we were still close. Reading enabled the cuddling and quiet and (often magical) moments of escape we both needed.
Sadie is seven years old now, with an effervescent three-year-old sister named Lydia. At bedtime there is often quite a bit of fighting about which books will get read. Sometimes they both want the same one and often the book doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as who picked it. Right now they are both big fans of Castle of the Cats, based on a Latvian folktale, retold by Eric A. Kimmel. I love doing the “voices” when I read this one, though sometimes I feel my serious children won’t allow me to perform my accents and sound effects often enough.
My husband and I take turns putting the girls to bed, and on my nights I spend extra time reading with Sadie, alone, in her room. Now she reads to me, and despite how tired I am after some long days, we both look forward to exploring books together. Scholastic’s Rainbow Magic series is excruciatingly boring to me, but Sadie enjoys the fairies and I have to work hard to avoid being too controlling of her rapidly expanding bookshelf.
Sometimes I’m a bad mommy: I strategize the introduction of new books and once in a while that Barbie is a Dentist book just goes missing?!? Beside Sadie’s bed right now, in a messy pile on the floor: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech; Think Again, a book of poems by Jon Arno Lawson; School for Cats by Esther Avril and one of my favourite books in the world: Stormy Night, by Michele Lemieux.
My girls are growing up. I cling to the hope that Sadie and Lydia will let me read to and with them forever. I look forward to the day when they start to advise and instruct me on what to read. I also I have a naive plan to maintain intimate contact with their complicated teenage psyches by continuing to read what they read. Because reading was how we first learned to listen and be close to each other. For me, reading will always be one more wonderful way to love them.
Shannon Bramer is a poet and playwright. Her first play, Monarita, was produced in St. John’s in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country. In June 2011 she enlisted the help of the celebrated Toronto publisher BookThug to create Think City, an anthology of poems for Gracefield Public School in North York. The Refrigerator Memory, published by Coach House Books in 2005, is on sale now! Sometimes you can find Shannon on the playground, recruiting little poets: poetintheplayground.blogspot.com.