What I’ve Learned from the Books My Kids Love

by Denise Schipani

My name is A.J., and I hate school …

This is how every single My Weird School book starts. The popular chapter book series by Dan Gutman, with titles like Miss Daisy Is Crazy and Mr. Klutz Is Nuts, was an early and lasting favorite for both my boys. My younger guy, 10, still pulls them off his shelf from time to time and giggles his way through them. At first, I wasn’t so enamored of A.J. and his school-hating subversiveness. But I quickly gave that up. Why? Because the books are darned funny.

Let’s face it, there’s often a generation gap in the books our children love. The books that get them buzzing are often not the same books that we loved. As my sons picked up various books or series over the years, I decided to flip my thinking and, instead of showing my distaste or mistrust of certain books, I’d try to learn something from the choices they made: learn about them, their personalities, what made them laugh, what got them most absorbed. Here are four things I’ve learned about my sons through the books that have grabbed their attention and won their affection:

They have a sharp sense of humor. Back to A.J. and his Weird School compatriots: There are some insider-y jokes embedded in the stories, like the time A.J. thought a new student his bus driver was going to pick up was Neil the nude kid (not Neil the new kid). Plus, there are footnotes, such as the one that, when you follow the asterisk to the bottom of the page, reads, “What are you doing down here? The story’s up there.” Kills us. Every time. Sharing a joke with my sons is something to savor. In fact, we’ve joked so much about how the bald principal of Ella Mentry School, the affable Mr. Klutz, resembles my kids’ own principal that I’ve almost called the real guy Mr. Klutz.

They often feel vulnerable. I’m just going to offer two words here: Wimpy Kid. We have all the books, some multiple copies (when my sons refuse to share). They’re worn to shreds, covers repaired with clear packing tape. They relate to hapless Greg Hafley of the multiple Diary of a Wimpy Kid graphic novels in ways I’ve started paying increased attention to because, well, middle school. I was “eh” at first on books of this ilk (and annoyed that one comes out every year — how good could they be?!), until I saw that my older son, particularly, uses them as comfort objects as much as books. So now when my guys use anecdotes from the book (“There was this time, Mom, that Greg was in the pool …”) to illustrate something they’ve seen, heard, or done, I listen. Greg is a sweet but vulnerable kid trying to navigate the social and emotional worlds of growing up. So are my kids. Welcome to my house, Greg-o.

Their attention spans sometimes run to cartoons, and that’s okay. Boy #2 developed an attachment to Calvin and Hobbes. Is that reading? More important question: Do I care? I used to, but I don’t anymore. If he’s up too late reading anything, I’ve decided, I can be slightly annoyed (that he’ll be hard to wake up in the morning) but also vastly proud (that he’s his mama’s son, staying up too late reading). Besides, C&H is really funny (see point 1), and has moved my kid to ask for sketchbooks so he can create his own cartoon series.

They like scary stuff. I did not like gory, monster-y stuff as a kid. When it came to mystery, my taste ran to the smart but tame Nancy Drew. My kids, though? It’s all about Goosebumps, the seemingly never-ending series of horror novels by R.L. Stine — diaries that predict the future, zombies that eat the math teacher, blobs from another planet (I may be making some of this stuff up). Here’s what I know so far about raising boys: Be ready to suppress your gag reflex and start enjoying gore, if that’s where they find their glee.