According to family legend, I started reading tomato soup labels at the grocery story when I was two. I fear my precociousness has been exaggerated, but it’s fair to say that I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t tumbling into books. My earliest memories are of The Poky Little Puppy, comics I found in the attic, my grandmother’s old copies of National Geographic, and a tattered edition of Mother Goose. I quickly moved on to the library and its smorgasbord of neatly labeled titles, each waiting for my tentative signature on the checkout card. I devoured Little House on the Prairie, The Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows, and absolutely anything by Judy Blume. Oh, Superfudge, how I loved you.
I don’t know if I read because I was curious or if I was curious because I read. Probably both. I do know, however, that books were my refuge. They gave me safety and comfort when life was confusing or uncertain. They were an escape and a sanctuary and a peaceful oasis. Books transported me to places I never imagined I’d visit and exposed me to ideas I had never considered. I preferred Watership Down to hide-and-go-seek with the neighbor kids, who took to calling me Ichabod Crane as I walked to school hunched over a book. My father worried that I was turning into a recluse, but I was content.
Books were very real companions through a tumultuous childhood and adolescence. I cannot imagine life without them. I like to think books changed me. I hope they made me more compassionate, idealistic, open-minded, aware, and brave. Maybe they made me smarter. I know they provided me with inspiration and standards to live up to and choices to avoid.
So, when I had my son, it surprised no one that I filled his room with stories. With a certainty and calm I didn’t know I had, I read to him for hours when he was an infant, hoping that the magic I experienced would pass to him. It did. At two, he would pile books at the end of his bed so he could “read” by the hallway light after we had tucked him in. I learned to sleep through the inevitable crash at 1:00 AM when they toppled to the floor. You do that sort of thing when you’re a reading enabler. Now he writes disjointed tales about fire engines and policemen and flying birds and is starting to read on his own. He is becoming an inveterate storyteller and dreamer — just like his parents.
I’m proud. I connect to him through stories in a way I hadn’t envisioned. Yet, there are challenges to being a mom who loves to read. Gone are the days when I could disappear for a weekend into the 18th Century or a dystopian future. I’ve traded escapism for a mother’s obligations. I am learning to be patient when my son stumbles over words that I expect he should know. My desire for him to be a fluent reader sometimes overpowers my knowledge that he’s just beginning to anchor himself in a world of words and he has a long way to go. I have to feign enthusiasm for yet another book about sharks. I’m really starting to hate sharks.
My biggest challenge, however, is keeping a straight face when he mangles the language I love. The downside to helping your child develop a large vocabulary through reading is that, one day, he’ll use it against you, but not quite the way he intends. I try very hard not to laugh when my son calls me “gruel and vicious” or threatens to put me in “handcups” and send me to jail as a “consequence for my actions.” I shouldn’t complain though. So long as he uses interesting words, many of which he learned from books, I know I’m doing something right.