How to Read a Book, Literally

As a natural literalist, reading to a small child can be a real challenge. Don’t misunderstand me: I LOVE reading with my son; it’s one of my favorite things we do together for many reasons. I get to sit next to him in the Cuddle Bed (a giant Costco dog bed plus numerous pillows piled in the corner of our living room), I get to stoke his imaginative fire and entertain him, and I get to do something I inherently enjoy: read out loud.

The structure of reading books aloud is one that dovetails nicely with my strengths and weaknesses. I’m enough of a performer to understand tone, inflection, and cadence; so I can keep the story interesting and deliver the lines with flair. (Not as much flair as my husband, who has an unearthly talent for accents and mimicry, but I’m good enough for the preschool set.) I’m devoted to accuracy, so I’m not one to skip lines or pages to speed things along; and on the rare occasion when I do miss a page, Avery is quick to correct me and direct us back on track. (No surprise there, child of two high-verbal know-it-alls.)

What I’m not so good at is the creativity part, the making stuff up on the fly part. I don’t want to tell original stories; I want to read existing ones, which is why having a stack of library books ever at the ready is so great. Because creativity feels like a high-pressure activity to me; especially if it’s called for without time to prepare. I don’t like being put on the spot, which is why I’m not a stand-up comedian or in sales.

For the longest time, Avery was satisfied to hear me dramatically read the story as written or to ask easily-answered, obvious questions pertaining to what things were. What’s that? A front-end loader. What’s that? A milk cow. He was learning the names of things, populating his world with known entities, and was increasingly pleased to show and tell me (or anyone who would listen) how many different vehicles he could identify in Things That Go. [hint: all of them]

However, the last month or so he’s become more interested in breaking down the pictures and asking more obtuse questions; questions pertaining to what the people, vehicles, animals, and miscellaneous objects are saying, feeling, or thinking. Mind, not what they’re saying in speech balloons or as written dialogue. No. He wants me to read between the lines; he wants to understand the motivations of these characters he’s been hearing about. He wants me to get creative.

Which leads him to ask questions like:

  • What does he say? (pointing to a tree with no face*)
  • What kind of boat that is? (pointing to a small, partially-obscured boat in the background)
  • Why is she worried? (pointing to a dog not directly involved in the story)
  • Why does he got a smile? (pointing to an NPC**)
  • Why is that truck sad? (ummmmmm…..)

[*For those of you who may not know, in little kid books practically everything is anthropormorphized, which makes it all fair game for feelings and thoughts.
**Non-player character.]

Right. So, I’m a technical writer, a perfectionist, and 63% left-brained according to the Buzzfeed quiz I took last week. I spend my days parsing often highly-technical sentences to find any inconsistencies or lack of clarity. I remove extraneous, unnecessary words and incorrect phrases until I can find the very center of a thought or intention. I can distill two paragraphs of content into a five-bullet list. I can write 500 words on just about any topic so long as you’re flexible about the perspective I take. I value clarity of thought and speech in myself and others almost to a fault.

I like to have the right answer. The answer that wholly complements the question you’re asking, fully and articulately delivered. In triplicate. It helps me feel safe in the world.

Problem is, there’s no actual right answer to the questions Avery is asking. And, as Brendan often points out (while wryly chuckling to himself because he knows me so well), Avery isn’t even asking me for the answer. He’s curious; he’s wondering; he’s having a good time with Mama reading books. He just wants to have a better understanding of the characters (and non-characters) in his world.

But my need to be right; it’s like a burning itch inside my head. It’s like he’s testing me. I have to explain accurately and succinctly why the ship is sad; the finer points between a row boat and an inflatable dinghy; or what a tree might, in fact, say were he asked. I start to get a little anxious because considering the weather conditions presented in the picture and the absence of other forest friends and based on the condition of his leaves what WOULD the tree say? Is my answer plausible given those details? What if I deliver…the wrong answer?

Then I get stuck; like a Roomba trapped in the corner. My brain makes this tiny CLICK sound and my voice stops working and I realize I’ve entered a surreal world where I’m trying to provide accurate, meaningful dialogue for a tree. A two-dimensional tree in a book about harvesting apples and recognizing shapes. It’s at this point I try and have a good laugh at my expense, remind myself to take parenting (and myself) a little less seriously, and to just fucking relax.

Because sometimes there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.

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