“Black Beauty?” I suggested.
“No. It’ll be too sad.”
“The Railway Children?”
“I know: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Funny! Or here — The Swiss Family Robinson!”
“It says it’s happy! Listen: ‘The Swiss Family Robinson is a story of the happy discovery of the wonders of natural history by a family shipwrecked on a desert island, who remain united through all the adversities that they encounter.’ Wait — it says it’s joyful too! A joyful classic!”
“No. Something else.”
Finally she pulled an Ivy and Bean from her shelf, which we’ve been reading since the picture book phase I wrote about last week. I like the Ivy and Bean books, but I’ve been craving a bigger story since before Christmas (though yes, I do read from my own library too!).
“Let’s pick something else,” I suggested. “Don’t you want to read a big, juicy novel?”
And then came the blow: “Mom, it’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now.”
I smiled to hide the sting, but privately I was thinking about all our years of reading together, and — at least in retrospect — how quickly they have flown by. It was another of those bicycle moments. You run and you run alongside your child (in our case for years!), and suddenly she is ready to go alone, and before either of you has realized it, she is flying away from you, and it’s you who becomes the speck in her distance when she finally looks back.
But this is wonderful, I thought as I closed her door last night. In this one respect, I know I have done my job well. N is a reader, and I suspect she will remain so. She has moved up through all the phases of reading, recognizing first the pictures, then the letters as pictures, then the letters as words, then the words as sentences, then the sentences as information. And with this skill she can unlock many mysteries. Wherever she wants to go, books will take her there, and in that regard I hope she will become a world traveler.
I’ve read that reading fiction increases empathy too–I suppose because one gets caught up in a character and looks at the story’s situation through that character’s eyes. In a sense you have to become someone else. I used to get N to eat by pretending the morsel on her plate was sad because she’d eaten other morsels but not “him.” As I put on my warbly Tiny Carrot voice — “Please eat me so I can be with my friends. I am so lonely!” — I’d sometimes worry I’d gone too far when I saw her face fill with pity, eyebrows working, mouth opening wide for the poor bit of food that had felt so abandoned.
I also recall walking through Value Village with N and coming upon a bedraggled stuffed dog lying in an aisle, with a $1.99 tag pierced into his neck. We both stopped and looked down at him, and he stared up at us with large blue eyes, felt tongue lolling. We had to take him home, and of course he’s with us still.
Years later, we sometimes sit in her room and go through the stuffed animals with the aim of getting rid of some, but we make the mistake of holding them up one by one and looking at their faces, and for a quiet moment they look back at us, waiting for our decision. Our cull is far from thorough every time.
There are the real creatures too — the baby squirrel who lost his mother and cried for help in our backyard; the kindergarten friend who wouldn’t speak but found a loyal friend in N, who spoke enough for both of them. We used to walk home together at lunchtime, the wordless girl and her wordless mother just ahead, and N and I trailing behind, calling out a cheerful goodbye when we reached our house.
Recently when her grandmother was sick, N hung a reversible sign on her doorknob, and ran a full series of checkups. She made “emergency pain notes” on her own medical stationery with a logo that read “your health matters to us.” She asked careful, thoughtful questions about where the pain was and what the patient would be willing to take for “soothment.” And would the patient like one hairdo per day, or two?
Whether this ability to understand another’s emotions comes because of reading, I’m not sure. I like to think that’s part of it. But I wonder too what makes books so special? Do movies increase empathy? Does television? There are lots of awful television shows for kids, but there’s great stuff too. In fact, the more I think about it, I suspect a show like Nana Lan, which N loved as a little girl, did indeed boost her ability to empathize. There are lots of books that have done zero in that regard. So perhaps it’s not so much the medium, but the value of the story it contains, and the extent to which the viewer can embrace that story.