Just after my son was born, my mother gave me a book called A Book. Although the book called A Book is a picture book, she made sure I knew it was really a gift for me. When I first opened it, I quickly identified with A Book’s main character; she’s a girl who wants to find her story, and journeys through many different genres — adventure, history, mystery, sci-fi, not to mention fairy tales — before declaring what she has discovered: “My story is that of a young girl who … writes her own story; I shall become an author!” Maybe my mom wanted to remind me that amidst the adventure of new motherhood, I could also continue to discover who I was as a writer, too.
A Book’s cover is big and robin’s egg blue, with cheery golden lettering and a tangle of zany characters racing diagonally across its front. When my son was a toddler, A Book was the size of a whole world. He’d open it and wonder at the many universes contained within, pointing his chubby finger at the characters and babbling along with me as I read. We kept it in a stack of books by the couch, dipping into it occasionally, until it got swept up in spring-cleaning and put on the bookshelf in his bedroom.
A Book didn’t resurface again until my son was four. My third novel was about to be published, the first book I’d published since he was born. A natural storyteller himself, my son had grown fascinated by the process of writing books (“Mama, my three favorite things in the world are family, love, and stories”). He had a million questions, and A Book seemed to satisfy his need to know that anyone can decide to be a storyteller. We read the book for the sheer excitement of the little girl’s bravery, determination, and imagination. She triumphed every time.
Then, one day when my son was five, and just starting to relish puns and wordplay, he held A Book up and said, “Mama, it’s called A Book. Get it? I’m going to read A Book.” That day, we read A Book with different eyes. We noticed that the first sentence of A Book begins on the title page: “Once, in A Book by Mordicai Gerstein … ” We discovered that the first and last pages of the book, which appear black at first glance, actually depict outlines of the characters asleep in their beds, because on those pages they are asleep (“When the book was closed it was night in the book, and the family slept.”). We gasped when the girl “noticed” us, and shrieked “EEEEEK! What’s that huge … blobby thing that looks like a face?” We talked about metafiction — although I’m not sure I used that word — and my son understood why it was so thrilling to be written into a story. He loved that every time A Book ends, it ends with the girl in the book lying down on her rug to write, “Once, in a book, there lived a young girl, who did not know what her story was … ” beginning the story all over again, just when it seems to be over.
I say we read A Book, but let’s face it, for all those years, I was reading it to him. Then, one frigid day about a month ago, we were housebound and grumpy; I suggested we collect a stack of books and get back into bed for the afternoon. The first book on the pile he picked was A Book. He read the title to me, no problem, and then opened the book and kept reading without skipping a beat. It was one of the first times he’d ever just wanted to read something to me without my prompting him. I kissed the top of his head and listened to the words flow out of him, helping him sound out the occasional “hardworking” and “astronaut” and “marooned.” And my eyes glistened with tears for a minute, listening to the boy reading A Book about the girl who sometimes seems like she is me — a story within a story within a story within one of the very best stories I know.