Monday, January 31, 2011

Stories (Reading to your kids)

A couple of times in the last few weeks, one thing or another has reminded me about reading to my daughters when they were little.  Sue and I did this pretty consistently; in fact, we doubt that a night passed that we didn't read to the kids before bed.  This practice lasted well past the time that they could read for themselves.

Elizabeth remembers me reading from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in an edition with wonderful illustrations by Edward Gorey. She wrote about it on her blog, which I find very touching.  One of my specialties was funny voices, and it's kind of fun that she still remembers them.  (By this point in my life, I no longer have to fake an old man voice...)  There was one book, I remember, that had something to do with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck visiting a haunted house.  I can do a respectable Mickey Mouse; my Donald Duck leaves a lot to be desired.  This did not bother Elizabeth, however, who asked for that book night after night.  Once, I was tired and tried to read it in a straightforward manner--just my dad voice.  No soap.  Elizabeth said, "No, Daddy.  It goes like this [insert four-year-old's squeaky version of a Mickey Mouse voice]: 'We're out of gas!'"  So of course I capitulated and did the voices as required.

Sue and I both liked reading poetry.  Sue admits that this was partly because you could sometimes get off the hook quicker.  After all, you're probably pooped by the time story hour rolls around, and no matter how romantic the notion of reading to your kids may sound, sometimes you're just not all that into it.  Poems are fun to read, and three or four of them will do the trick most nights.  One of my favorites was James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphant Annie," but I didn't get to read it too often.  Evidently, I was too convincingly scary on the last line of each stanza:  "And the Gobble-uns'll GIT you ef you don't watch out!"  (I added the capitals there on "git" to give a feeling for how I said it.)  Both Elizabeth and Miriam would cringe in horror if I offered to read it.  They probably still would!  But we had other favorites.  I recall one about a dragon named custard who liked mustard (or maybe it was the other way around...).  They loved my recitation of the Grinch every Christmas--and that was a whole lot of fun to read.  I still enjoy it.  We got lots of mileage out of Shel Silverstein's stuff, and I'm pleased that both girls still remember those poems well enough to quote them.  We had fun with Jack Prelutsky's poems, too.

Less pleasant, despite their unending popularity with the kids, were Richard Scarry's books.  I don't deny that they're great books, and kids love them.  But they have no plot.  They have big pages full of little details, and you can't skip any of them.  I confess I found reading them a chore.  Poor Mr. Frumble never did catch his hat, did he?  And Lowly Worm (what a depressing name!) seemed to have more than his share of trials.

Miriam enjoyed hearing invented stories.  I drove her to Montessori School every morning, and it was a ritual that she'd ask for a story:  "Read me a story, Daddy."  (It's a good thing I didn't actually try to read, because, you see, I was driving.)  Trouble is, it was early in the morning, and I am not  a morning person.  Making up a story on the spot when I was half asleep was a bit of a challenge.  One day, I hit upon what I thought was an ideal solution:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Miriam.  She was riding to school with her father, when she said, "Read me a story, Daddy."  So he did.  And it went like this:  Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Miriam...
Miriam, however, failed to be impressed by the post-modern surrealism of this.  She laughed the first time, and maybe even the second time.  By the third time, she said, "Ready me a story, Daddy, but not what we're doing now."  That was the end of that.

So I'd slyly try to get her to tell the story.  "OK," I'd say.  "Who's this story about?"  "A princess."  "OK, a princess.  What's she wearing?"  "A yellow dress with orange flowers."  (Give her a break.  She was four.)  "And where was she going?"  And so on.  You get the idea.

I also specialized in corrupted stories:  "Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits, and their names were Isadore, Salvador, Matador, and Shut the Door..."  (NOOOOOO!!! was the inevitable cry from the back seat.  I was always a little sorry that neither of them ever appreciated the subtle word-play.)  Or I'd use a kind of stream of consciousness to let one story flow into another:  "Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had a wicked stepmother and three ugly stepsisters.  These sisters were so mean that every night, they would bring a pile of straw into the house and demand that the little girl spin it into gold.  But she would prick her finger on the spindle and fall asleep.  When she woke up, she found herself in a house with seven little men..."  (Actually, I rarely got that far.  I was usually interrupted by shrieks of "NOOOOO" mixed with gales of laughter.  But then I could get one of them to tell the story correctly...)

It's nice to think that some vestige of this remains with the girls' memories.  It sure was fun, even when it felt like work.  On more than one occasion, I made up a poem or a story that I actually wrote down.  There was one quite extended narrative about the adventures of Elizabeth's favorite toy, a pink stuffed mouse that went everywhere with her and had a terrible knack of getting lost.  Once we were on a long car trip.  After a lunch stop, Elizabeth said, "Where's Mousie?"  We had left him at the restaurant.  I backtracked--it was at least 30 miles--to go back and retrieve him.  The detour was well worthwhile:  Elizabeth could never go to sleep without that mouse.  He finally left us in an airport, and my best efforts to go back and find him were completely thwarted.  So I bought Elizabeth a new mouse and wrote a story about the terrific adventures the old one was having.  I don't know how well it placated her.

Here's one of my poems.  Elizabeth was just over a month old when I wrote this in 1985, and I read it to her often when she was little.  I still quite like it:


Who's that fellow who walks on his hands about town,
With his heels in the air and his palms on the ground,
With his clothes inside-out and his head turned around?
He's the madcap, sad-sack, upside-down clown!

He smiles when he's sad; when he's happy, he frowns.
He thinks dirt is blue and the sky is dark brown.
For him, down is up and the up side is down--
He's a silly, dilly, upside-down clown!

And you know what is silliest 'bout this turned-around clown
As he goes into town with his hands on the ground?
He sees all the folks use their feet to get 'round;
He looks at them sadly and thinks they're upside-down!

But I hope he keeps on wearing pants for a crown,
Going in through the out and up by the down.  
For if he turns over to walk on his feet,
He'll see things like everyone else that I meet,
And I like him much better all turned upside-down,

As a madcap,

If you have the chance to read to a child, go ahead and do it, even if you're too tired.  (We had a joke about that, too:  "Why is Dad like a bicycle?  Because he's two-tired!")  You'll be making memories for one of you--with a little luck, the one who gets the memories might even be the kid.


  1. Actually, some of my most vivid memories are of being read to. I think I was the only one afraid of Little Orphan Annie. Miriam liked it and she'd ask for it, especially around halloween, and then I'd get mad because it was SCARY dammit! Miriam never did have a sense of self-preservation as a child... (we're talking about a toddler who couldn't swim, but wanted to go off the diving board anyway.)

    We did have some picture books we liked. Mom liked to read us The Lupin Lady, and Miriam and I both loved a book called The Witch's Broom." It had these beautiful sepia toned illustrations. I LOVED Abiyoyo (especially when we got to sing the song). A tour of the bookshelves in our room reveals that we still have most of those picture books, some of them with bindings worn out from use.

  2. Alex and I still have a set of voices from the 'Akiko' series of books that set us off into gales of laughter! He let me read to him until he was about 13. I'm often sad that we stopped. He was intrigued by the Don Quixote story so I started to read it to him, but then he decided he wanted to read it himself instead...sigh.

  3. I love this! What wonderful memories. You are a good writer and should consider publishing your blog into a "blurb" book at the end of each year. I'm sure your children and grandchildren would cherish your thoughts.