Reading a wonderful book for the first time is a delight. Re-reading a favorite book is an even greater joy. And re-reading a favorite book out loud to a beloved child has got to be one of the great reading pleasures of all time.
And yet, it is not quite the experience that we might expect. For one thing, a book one loves at age six, for instance, seems a very different book at age thirty-six. The reader has changed, and so has the world—vastly so. When we pick up these classics, we delight in the same language, characters and stories, and yet we see different layers of meaning than we did when we were young. Indeed, the best children's books speak to adults as well as kids, and so we now get to discover a whole new book within the old.
I've had this experience recently while reading three of my very favorite early chapter books with my kids. These books are just as wonderful as I remembered, but I took something different from them this time around.
One of the first old favorite chapter books I read to my children was Little House in the Big Woods. As I remembered it, this book was about adventures in the Wisconsin forest—a black panther, bears, hornets' nests—and also delightful celebrations like maple-sugaring, Christmas stockings and dancing at Grandpa's. That's all still there (of course), and my daughters loved it. But there's another side to the book that I hadn't remembered or probably much noticed decades ago. To a large degree, it is a chronicle of housekeeping and also of child-rearing. The chores are complex, demanding, and never-ending. The children have many responsibilities, and the discipline can be harsh. From the parental perspective, it is instructive to be reminded how much was once expected of very young children, how few playthings they possessed, and how contented they were nevertheless.
E.B. White's Stuart Little was another old-favorite book on our summer reading list this year. A mouse-like personage born into a well-heeled New York City family? The premise itself is a delight, and the story rollicks along from there. But aside from the high-jinks I remembered so well (and there are many), what struck me this time around was the poignancy of the story. Stuart's family loves him dearly, and yet he is so very different from them. He gets into all sorts of trouble from which they cannot save him, embarks on adventures they cannot share and, finally, departs on a journey with no known destination and nary a farewell. As a parent, I wanted to tell my enthralled little listeners: Stuart is great, but don't you dare try anything like this! Little good that would do, I realize....
Finally, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Such fun! Betty McDonald dreamed up this character in 1947 and she still proves to be a favorite with 21st-century children. And that makes perfect sense: after all, the world is still full of kids afflicted with "Won't-Pick-Up-Toys-itis" and "Answer-Backer-ism." It is a joy to see how much my kids appreciate this eccentric lady living in an upside-down house and hosting after-school playtime every day of the week. But it is even more enlightening to realize that this book was really written for parents as much as for kids. We read about anxious mothers calling each other up for advice, comparing notes on their kids, and struggling to find ways of disciplining their kids other than sending them to their rooms. Not so much has changed, after all! And we can certainly still all benefit from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's ingenious cures.
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