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“Good thoughts will shine out of your face like sunbeams”

William Kilburn's 1777 watercolour shows the dandelion in all its elegance.

I got a note this morning from a friend, telling me that N has been regaling her daughter AW with stories of Harry Potter. And now AW and her family are reading Harry Potter before the lights go out and again at the breakfast table. And it occurred to me that good books are like dandelion seeds that just keep on floating and finding new homes. Not that good books are common, but that they are enduring. N has been asking about the meaning of the word “classic” lately, and dandelion seeds might make a good analogy. (In my mind, dandelions are a classic flower.)

Since I last posted about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we have carried on with our Roald Dahl mission. We’ve made our way through James and the Giant Peach, then The Twits, and are now halfway through Matilda. I remain a loyal Dahl fan, though The Twits disappointed.  It’s about Mr. Twit, a hairy, cruel, crass ex-monkey trainer with bits of tinned sardine and Stilton cheese in his beard, and his wife Mrs. Twit,  who’s grown ugly over the years because of her ugly thoughts. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes, “it begins to show on the face. … A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (That part I liked.)

Together, Mr. and Mrs. Twit are “the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest people in the world.” Mrs. Twit walks with a cane, not because she needs supporting but because she likes to hit children and animals with it. Mr. Twit drinks beer at breakfast. They are united by their ugliness — Mr. Twit catches the birds that land on a nearby tree by smearing the branches with glue, and Mrs. Twit cooks the birds into a pie — but they are also ugly to each other. They’re constantly getting each other back for some nasty trick with a trick that is nastier still. Mrs. Twit feeds her husband worms disguised as spaghetti, and so Mr. Twit gradually lengthens Mrs. Twit’s cane to convince her she’s got “the shrinks.”

It is a funny story, though for me (admittedly not for N) it quickly wore thin. I kept asking myself, why isn’t this working? The answer lay more than halfway through the book, when we meet a family of monkeys the Twits keep in a cage outside. The monkeys hate the Twits and long to return to the African jungle, and to escape the people who’ve made their lives so miserable. These monkeys are our Charlie, our James of the Giant Peach, our Harry. They’re the ones we need to attach ourselves to in order to care about the story, and they are absent from the early pages. There isn’t enough time left in the story to really fall for them, though of course we want them to escape, and we are happy when the Roly-Poly Bird and the would-be pie birds help them pull the ultimate prank on the Twits.

Dahl himself wrote that he simply wanted to “do something against beards,” so I suppose I’m taking The Twits far too seriously. But what is so brilliant about Charlie and James and Matilda and the BFG is how quickly and unequivocally we bond with the main characters. Impoverished Charlie trying to share his yearly chocolate bar with his family; James held hostage in the cruel world of Aunts Sponge and Spiker; tiny Matilda forced to put her stupid book away and watch telly with her horribly uncouth family (“Don’t you ever stop reading?”); little Sophie quaking in the dark orphanage, only to be scooped up by a dream-catching giant.

The Twits has none of that. It didn’t diminish N’s enjoyment of the story, but she did ask several times, “Mom, who is more main? Mr. or Mrs.?” Which leads me to believe she was unsure of who was taking us through. I suspect the monkeys were meant to take us through, but arrived too late for the job.

Now Matilda, in more ways than one, is another story. I have a soft spot for Quentin Blake’s depictions of her, since they remind me of my own little N. The similarities stop there: N is smart, funny, and delightful, and Matilda is a genius. By five, she’s read Dickens and Steinbeck, despite the fact that her parents are monstrous and see her as “nothing more than a scab. … Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away.”

I wonder if it’s Matilda’s brilliance that has N asking about classics and reciting her multiplication tables to me. On her top bookshelf, she has a row of books written by me. Last night she pulled down Water Wings, my first novel, and began to read, grinning all the while. It’s not a book for children, and I’m sure she’ll lose interest soon.

“Did it feel weird,” she asked, “the first time  you saw your name on a book?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it feels weirder to see you reading it.”

She picked out lines she liked and read them to me. And they were nice ones, if I do say so myself, which is a compliment to both of us. As I pulled her door closed, she called out, “I like your book, Mom. It’s really good.” And though she only got a page in, it was strangely touching. Touching that she thought it was good, yes, but also that she had every confidence that her opinion mattered.

 

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Mortal peril and bluebirds

Julie Walters as the magnificent Molly Weasley. "Harry watched with terror and elation as Molly Weasley's wand slashed and twirled, and Bellatrix Lestrange's smile faltered, and became a snarl. Jets of light flew from both wands, the floor around the witches' feet became hot and cracked; both women were fighting to kill."

Sadly, we finished Harry last week. Seven books in seven months, devoured the year N was seven. I have to say I didn’t expect to like the books as much as I did. They are wonderfully rich stories, but I think I loved them even more for the way they brought the three of us together, so excited to see what would happen next, and talking over each other to squeeze our predictions in. The term “reading ahead” became a common accusation in our house — “Mom! I saw Dad reading ahead!” — so much so that it extended into other areas of our life. One day N’s dad phoned to say he would be home late, and N said, “Okay, Dad, we’ll eat ahead.”

There was plenty of sobbing over this final book. For me, the most intense part came towards the end of the story, when Hermione, Luna, and Ginny, all teenage girls, were battling the evil Bellatrix Lestrange. She was much more powerful than they were, and had very nearly cursed Ginny to death when Mrs. Weasley, the frumpy, doting, fretting mother figure throughout all of the Harry books, ordered the girls “OUT OF MY WAY!” and flew at Bellatrix, her witch’s power infused with maternal love. I could hardly get the words out I was crying so hard. Later N’s dad suggested, “I think you relate to Mrs. Weasley a little more than you realized!” And yes, I have to admit, I do.

Like me, Mrs. Weasley is the one who rushes everyone to readiness for their various activities, and gives annoying reminders of what needs to be done when and what will happen if it isn’t accomplished. She bustles around the ramshackle Burrow doing the chores and keeping her eye on a magical clock that was “completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family’s names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. ‘Home,’ ‘school,’ and ‘work’ were there, but there was also ‘traveling,’ ‘lost,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘prison,’ and, in the position where the number twelve would be on a normal clock, ‘mortal peril.'” Later in the series, with the return of the Dark Lord, all nine hands point to “mortal peril,” and Mrs. Weasley has taken to carrying the clock around the house with her, so she can keep her eye on it (and her family) at all times.

I remember when N was a baby how anxious I felt when the three of us were separated. As long as we were all three together, it seemed that everything would be all right, but as soon as one of us was removed from that scenario (N’s dad off at work, or the two of us on a date, with N’s grandma babysitting), the anxiety would return in a flood. Luckily, that passed, but I well recall the feeling that we were somehow protected simply by being together.

N’s dad was away this weekend, and I had no worries whatsoever. N crawled in with me two nights in a row, and we watched movies and read books together, side by side. She’s working her way through a little gem I discovered, Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger. It’s beyond N’s reading level, but I love the fact that she wants to work her way through it alone, and to read while I’m reading. It didn’t really work out that way, of course, because she interrupted me every few minutes to ask about a word, and then glanced over when I’d put my book aside and asked “Mom, why aren’t you reading?”

A publicity still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Our movie this weekend was The Wizard of Oz, which we hadn’t seen for some time, and on this viewing N was quite curious about Dorothy — or rather Judy Garland. Who plays Dorothy, she wanted to know, and how old was she then and how old would she be now, and was she rich, as rich as J.K. Rowling?

I told her what I knew: that Judy Garland had become famous for her singing and acting at a very young age, after the phenomenal success of The Wizard of Oz, and that sometimes fame muddles up your life in the worst ways possible. And then — curious myself —  we looked her up to find out more.

Frances Ethel Gumm, flanked by her older sisters, in 1933

She was born Frances Ethel Gumm, and her parents were vaudevillians who ran a movie theatre. She and her sisters — The Gumm Sisters! — performed at the theatre from an early age, accompanied by their mom on piano, but it was Frances/Judy who went on to fame and fortune. She was just 16 when she was cast as Dorothy, belting out “Over the Rainbow” (which, like Supercali, N can pick out on the piano) and surely unaware how the song would follow her through her life from then on. In later years she wrote, “‘Over the Rainbow’ has become part of my life. It’s so symbolic of everybody’s dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still the song that’s closest to my heart.”

It’s no surprise. From the sounds of it, Judy Garland was certainly no happy little bluebird. And she didn’t have Molly Weasley for a mother. They were estranged for years, and Judy once told Ladies’ Home Journal that her mother was “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.” Even without her mother, Garland’s life seemed full of chaos and fear. Of one of her suicide attempts, she said, “All I could see ahead was more confusion.”

As I pondered all of this and the hefty price of fame, N sat pondering too. I wondered what she was thinking about so intently, and if there was a weighty question coming my way, perhaps about life and death, mortal peril, maybe, or sadness. But after a while she looked up at me with the sparkle of an idea showing in her eye and she asked, “Mom, can anyone change their name? I mean … can I?”

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Feeding the Birds

Mary Shepard's illustration of Mary Poppins, 1934

I volunteered at N’s school this morning, and we walked there together, along with her friend A, and somehow the conversation turned to Mary Poppins. I treated the girls to my warbling rendition of Feed the Birds, the scene where a “little old bird woman” sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. And as I crooned, I was thinking that it was the wind that made N and I watch Mary Poppins the first time.

Some years ago, when she was 3, we’d been standing at a busy corner, waiting for the light to change. It was raining a little, and very windy, and we had our umbrellas up. Suddenly a huge gust whipped around us, pulling, and it felt as though we might be lifted up into the sky. I laughed and squeezed N’s hand, shouting, “Hang on!” And I thought of Mary floating through the sky towards her charges, with only her will and her umbrella to keep her airborne. After that we marched spit-spot to the movie store, skipping our other errands, and at home we curled up with hot chocolate and watched the magic unfold.

Bert’s English accent is something quite atrocious, but Mary can make a chalk drawing open into the lush countryside, and inspire toys to put themselves away; she can win horse races wearing a flouncy hat and dress, and she can always think of something to say when she has nothing to say — supercalifragilisticexpialidocious  (which coincidentally is the very song N is learning in piano this week). Her carpetbag, containing everything she could possibly need, including houseplants and floor lamps, is not unlike Hermione’s beaded bag in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so perhaps Mary knew the Undetectable Extension Charm? Or was herself a student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, long before Potter’s time? Well, we’ll never know, because as the first chapter of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel tells us, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.”

There were eight Mary Poppins books, published at long intervals, over a period of more than fifty years. Mary Shepard illustrated all of them.

I’m curious to read the Mary Poppins books, since the character of Mary sounds darker and more mysterious than Julie Andrews’ version. Travers herself was a bit of a mystery too: a single mom, an actress, a poet, a dancer, a journalist, and possibly a curmudgeon before she took to writing children’s books. She was apparently involved as an adviser on the1964 musical, but she didn’t like the way Mary’s character had been sweetened with Walt Disney’s spoonful of sugar, and she didn’t like Walt much either. She never again agreed to another Disney adaptation. The Mary she created had shiny black hair like a wooden doll’s, and “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering eyes.” She gave fierce, terrible glances that told you “you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

Originally Travers had hoped E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame would illustrate the Poppins books, but he was too busy. And then by chance she discovered the drawings of Shepard’s daughter, Mary, a young woman just out of art school. The image that caught her eye was penned on a Christmas card, and showed a horse flying through the air, Poppins style. “Of course it wasn’t Leonardo, but I didn’t need Leonardo,” Travers later wrote. “I was after a happy imperfection, innocence without naivete, and, as well, a sense of wonder.” The young Mary Shepard — who said she felt like Eeyore in Travers’ domineering presence — was easily manipulated. Travers led her on walks through the park to point out possible likenesses for the characters in the book, and vetoed the position of the protagonist’s feet. Shepard wanted fifth position, with the feet turned out, but Travers insisted on fourth, with the feet at right angles. And like the stern Mary Poppins she created, she was not a woman to be argued with. Eventually, though, Shepard’s depictions of Mary and the Banks family took shape, and added a charming new layer to Travers’ story.

Walt must have sided with Mary Shepard -- notice Mary Poppins' feet are in the fifth position....

Unlike Travers, I’m a fan of the movie. It’s nostalgic for me, and very much of  my time — but I agree that something vital is lost when we take the edge out of children’s stories. When we make things too happy and pretty and sweet for them. I remember N’s Bambi phase, and how I cringed every time Bambi’s father said, in his deep, serious voice, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” But it seemed to me N was figuring things out by watching — big concepts given clarity by storytelling. Food, in a way.

And still today that’s happening. The drama in Harry Potter is sometimes pretty intense, what with Harry, Ron and Hermione searching out the various hiding places of the Dark Lord’s severed soul and destroying these “horcruxes” one by one for the greater good. The other night as we lay in bed reading, N grew increasingly agitated when Ron seemed unwilling or unable to destroy one. Evil emanated from the nasty thing, and grabbed onto his deepest weaknesses, ensuring him he was “least loved … second best, always, eternally overshadowed.” Suddenly N let out a great wail of exasperation and shouted “I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head! This can’t be happening!

I know that feeling. When you are so immersed in a story, and it twists in a way you never imagined, and you want to scream, NOOOO!, but you keep reading all the same, even more compelled than you were before. It happens with children’s books and adults’ books alike, if the writer is savvy enough — though I don’t know why I make the distinction. Travers certainly didn’t. According to biographer Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Travers always denied writing with an audience in mind. “I never know why Mary Poppins is thought of as a children’s book. Indeed I don’t think there are such things. There are simply books and some of them children read.”

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“This lovely world, these precious days”

It sometimes seems that N saves her most serious questions for the moment I’m pulling the door closed at bed time. A little while back she asked, “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Why do we close our eyes when we die?”

“Well — we don’t, necessarily. Sometimes people die with their eyes open, and someone closes them, just with their hand, brushing it over the eyelids.”

“But why close them? Can the eyes still see?”

“No.” I hesitated. I wasn’t really sure what to say. The obvious answer seemed to be that it was a gesture of respect for the person who’d died. But it didn’t really seem true to me, so instead I said, “I guess it’s more for the living person, who needs to feel that the person who’s died is at peace.”

These kinds of questions pop up periodically, and often leave my mind whirling long after N has fallen asleep. Funnily, she sometimes sleeps with her eyes open just the tiniest sliver, and has done so since she was a baby. I used to love to watch her as she slept, and see how the irises took on a sort of glazed appearance, as if they were still working, but seeing something inside rather than out.

I’m sure the questions come, in part, because of our ongoing adventures with the Harry Potter series. Harry’s beloved godfather Sirius Black died in the fifth book, falling through the Veil with a “look of mingled fear and surprise,” as Bellatrix LeStrange’s triumphant screams rang in Harry’s ears. And now, part way through the sixth, The Half-Blood Prince, we are all waiting for the moment Albus Dumbledore dies, a spoiler that caused us all to gasp aloud when N’s friend uttered it several books back. Death is such a constant part of this series that it’s no surprise it comes up when the light goes out. J.K. Rowling herself has said, “My books are largely about death. … I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”

And yet — I remember a time a few years back, when N was three or four, and her grandma’s good friend died. For a year or so after, N would ask about what happened to him. One day as I retold the story for the umpteenth time, I finished with, “It was very sad, but….”

And she said, “No, Mom. It isn’t sad. It’s okay, because people always want to die right when they’re going to.”

It was one of those moments when you aren’t sure if a child has said something incredibly profound or if you, as an adult, have read more into it. In any case, it’s always stayed with me. It felt a bit like a gift.

When discussing these weighty subjects, it can be tricky to know what kids are ready for and what feels like too much. For all her apparent wisdom, N was too tender for Charlotte’s Web when we read it together some years ago. She seemed to be loving the story, but when it became obvious that Charlotte the spider was winding down, getting ready to leave “this lovely world, these precious days,” the story was too heartbreaking. We finished it, but she didn’t want to read it again — a sure sign, in those days of reading the same things over and over, that something was amiss. But Charlotte’s Web is a beautiful story. Eudora Welty wrote that it was about “friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.” That must be one of the most eloquent bits of praise I’ve ever come across.

E.B. White had a solid career at The New Yorker long before he began writing children’s literature. He was over 50 when Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. Like the Little House books I wrote about last time, Charlotte’s Web was illustrated by Garth Williams, who apparently used his own daughter as a model for Fern Arable, the determined eight-year-old who’s shocked that Wilbur the pig will be killed just because he’s the runt of the litter. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says.

I think I was in Grade 3 when I read Charlotte’s Web, and I remember being puzzled by the title, and also trying to figure out, in my child’s way, whose story this was. Was it Fern’s? Was it Wilbur’s? Was it Charlotte’s? In the end, of course, it’s about all of them, and the web of friendship.

As Charlotte tells Wilbur just before she dies, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

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Sum bilive, sum dont

Today N starts Grade 3. The butterflies were moving fast and furious last night in her belly, and again this morning. I remember that feeling still. I remember Grade 3, too, and how it was one of my favourite years. I had a teacher named Miss Way, who looked a bit like Snow White in modern dress. She taught us about pioneers and how to make candles, and only the formidable Harold Martindale and I still stood at the end of spellings bees, facing off, my heart racing as letters scrambled themselves into order in my brain.

I think this was the year I discovered the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can still see them lined up on the library shelf, looking fat and important in their crinkly see-through wraps. It was so exciting to read one book and to know there were all those others still waiting to be devoured.

Little House in the Big Woods came first, and tells the story of Laura’s 1870s childhood in Wisconsin, where she lived “in a little gray house made of logs. The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees, and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees, and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”

These famous books have endured since the 1930s, when Ingalls Wilder finally set pen to paper to tell the story of her life. She was in her sixties by then, and had already been a teacher, a dressmaker, a farmer, and a columnist for The Ruralist. Her column, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” had a small but loyal audience, and though her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, by then a successful freelance writer herself, encouraged Ingalls Wilder to expand her repertoire, she seemed content dabbling this way for many years. It was only when the stock market crashed and the family’s savings were lost that Ingalls Wilder embarked on a more ambitious writing career.

Which is amazing and impressive to me. I can’t imagine turning yet more toward writing, of all things, if I suddenly found myself destitute. But I love the idea that people’s lives have chapters; that we don’t know what lies ahead for us, even though we are the very ones who take ourselves there. And of course I love the idea of “success” at a late age. I put the word in quotes because I’m still not quite sure how to define it, at least for myself. But certainly publication in forty languages over a period of eighty years would be one way….

This is N's motto of late. For her, it pertains to the fairies she leaves notes for on her window sill. But whether fairies are your thing or not, they seem like pretty fine words to live by.

I’ve picked up both Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, the second book, for N’s shelf, but we have not yet delved in. I’m curious to know what she’ll think of the stories, and also how I’ll find them after all these years — if indeed I’m reading them with her. As I’ve mentioned often on this blog, I can see the day is coming that she’ll want to read alone. But the summer months whizzed by with read-aloud Harry, all three of us engrossed first in The Goblet of Fire, which came with us on our cottage holiday, and then in The Order of the Phoenix, picked up a mere twenty minutes after Goblet was done. Our goal was to finish Phoenix by the time school started, but we haven’t quite made it. There’s only one chapter to go, though, so tonight’s the night. The story is as compelling as ever, so much so that N’s dad cheated, and read ahead without us after N went to bed, zooming to the end because he had to know what happened or sleep might elude him. He loves these stories as much as she does, and in fact the language of Harry Potter has worked its way into our regular vocabulary. The other day at breakfast, when he was feeling a little lackluster, distinctly unmagical, and middle-aged, he commented, “I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s bad. I’m turning into a muggle.”

We love sharing these books with our daughter, but we also appreciate them from our own adult perspective: the shifting layers of right and wrong, of so-called good and so-called evil, have steadily become the very core of the series. What to make of how the wizarding world treats centaurs and giants and little house elves, essentially slaves who most wizards believe like working for free? As Dumbledore tells Harry towards the end of the book, when the Dark Lord’s power is on the rise, “We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for far too long, and we are now reaping the reward.”

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The harry scaries

At long last, we’ve found ourselves in the magnificent world of Harry Potter, with its moving photographs, talking hats, invisibility cloaks, nearly headless ghosts, flying cars, magic-less muggles, and wizards. We’re on book two, and N is addicted. She pays close attention to the fine details — notice above how she’s drawn patches on Ron’s clothes to illustrate that the Weasleys don’t have much money; and how Harry’s scar forms a lightning shape on his forehead. Hermione, ever studious, holds a pencil and paper.

We whipped through the first book in record time, and then watched the movie. N, following the advice of her auntie, who traveled the Potter road with her son years ago, viewed many scenes through the holes of an afghan, as if that barrier could protect her from the likes of  Severus Snape, Argus Filch, or the evil Lord Voldemort, who lurks who knows where — maybe everywhere. Her auntie, alongside us for the show, was as excited as we were, partly because it’s such a good story, I think, but also because of the memories she has of moving through the Potter series with her son, who’s off to college this fall.

This is something I’ve noticed when I mention these books to parents with children of a certain age: they absolutely glow when they recall reading them with their kids. One friend recently wrote that her daughters were a perfect age for Harry Potter when the first book appeared.

“Since the books usually came out in June or July, we would take them up to the cottage with us and I can remember reading aloud for hours during long summer afternoons and evenings, none of us wanting to stop the wonder and excitement of the story or the warm relaxed feeling of connection as the three of us sat cuddled together…. Reading and long lazy summers, and my girls. My version of heaven.”

As a writer, I have mixed feelings about phenomenal sensations like Harry Potter. The books are really good, but it’s frustrating to see how such successes put everything else in shadow. Wikipedia states that, “The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became the fastest selling book in history, moving 11 million units in the first twenty-four hours of release.” Those sorts of crazes rub me the wrong way — not just for books, but for Cabbage Patch Dolls and Silly Bandz. But nonetheless, here I find myself, a Muggle, totally absorbed in this magical world.

The books are especially intense for N. I have to regularly remind her that “He’s probably going to be okay. There are five more books, after all, and he’s in all of them.” Still, when reading, we have to follow up with a chaser of Ivy and Bean or Clarice — “to take the Harry Scaries away.” I understand the books get increasingly dark as the series goes along, so I’m not sure how quickly we’ll move through them. Just last night, we had to stop reading altogether because, along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, we were rushing past flaming torches down a Hogwarts corridor and we came upon Argus Filch’s cat Mrs Norris hanging by her tail, “stiff as a board, her eyes wide and shining.” An ominous message had been scrawled on the wall: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware.”

It was too much for N; she needed a break. As we closed Harry and opened Clarice, she whispered, “Good thing Harry doesn’t die. Because there are five more books, right?”

Yet it’s obvious we’ve entered a different phase, and though from a writer’s point of view the stories we read are becoming increasingly complex and exciting, from a mother’s point of view, the transition is bittersweet.

Recently we were visiting my mom, and on the first night we settled in with Harry to read another chapter. We laid in the bed facing the dresser, which held all the things it has always held: a tiny candle; a silhouette picture of me from Disneyland; three sets of children’s books each contained in boxes.

These are the stories we’ve always read at Grandma’s house — AA Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Mother Goose; fairy tales and abridged versions of Dorothy and Alice. There’s something about boxed sets that N loves. I suppose they feel like little gifts; the stories themselves are elevated, somehow, by this special presentation.

Just as I opened Harry Potter, N interrupted me and said “Wait!”

She jumped out of bed, rushed to the dresser, and grabbed one of the book sets, easing a book free. She opened to a random page, held the book to her face and breathed in.

“Mmmm,” she said. “I love these books. Smelling them gives me old memories.”

How wonderful to know that at seven, she already has a cache of memories about reading. It reminds me of Rosemary Wells saying, “Reading to your little one is just like putting gold coins in the bank. It will pay you back tenfold.”

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