Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.
Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they choose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being.
“Why’s the bunny want to run away?”
My older son asked this, back when he was almost three, as we read Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. It was a good question. The little bunny seems awfully desperate to escape, particularly when he’s pictured crossing the sea, with ears expanded into (slightly creepy) pink boat sails.
It’s one of the first conversations about books I remember having with any of my kids. I don’t remember what we decided about the bunny, but I know we talked. I’m not one of those stop-interrupting-and-let-me-read sort of parents. This isn’t because I’m particularly patient or virtuous; I just like talking about books.
Questions about why bunnies might run away and why hungry caterpillars might snack on Swiss cheese and lollipops soon led to more complex wonderings. “Why does Almanzo’s family eat so much?” as we read Farmer Boy. “Why do John and Michael forget about their parents—but Wendy doesn’t?” as we read Peter Pan. “How can Pippi Longstocking live by herself?” (And why did we find this description of her strength—Why, she could lift a whole horse if she wanted to! And she wanted to. —so very endearing?)
I don’t mind all the wondering. I don’t mind when we listen to audiobooks in the car, and someone calls out, “Stop the story!” to raise a question or share an insight. There’s something about listening to books on car rides in particular that seems to promote conversation: maybe it’s the easy proximity to that stop button; maybe it’s the fact that being trapped in the car, there’s little to do but listen to one another.
Once, listening to an a old cassette version of Treasure Island, my older two, then five and eight, began complaining from the back seat that Robert Louis Stevenson had done a terrible job in developing the character of Long John Silver. His evil was too obvious, they insisted, it wasn’t subtle enough! I chuckled. A five and an eight-year-old critiquing a master! How cute! But it was more than that. Something shifts when kids begin questioning an author’s craft. For the first time they start toying with the notion that they might write the work better themselves.
“Why is it so funny when a villain like Count Olaf uses a word like yep?” my youngest asked one day, after demanding that I stop the story! as we listened to a volume of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s really Snicket’s fault that my kid was deconstructing words and humor this way; it’s what Snicket does himself throughout the series. My youngest and I ought to know: while I made it through most of the books with my older two kids, those kids grew up before the series was completed. My youngest and I began from the beginning and listened to the entire series, all thirteen books, consecutively, until arriving at The End. Many words and their nuances were dissected along the way.
Recently, while reading from Snicket’s new series at bedtime, under a pile of blankets that my kid calls a jumble of cozy, the two of us came across the line, “…Mrs. Murphy Sallis gave me a brief smile, and offered me her hand, which was as smooth and soft as old lettuce.” This cracked us up. We’ve been talking about analogies lately, and this was a good one. “Lemony Snicket never writes clichés,” my son said, as if it were both obvious and a revelation. What he didn’t add, but might as well have, was, “And I’m not going to write them either.”
Maybe it was the day when we finished Huckleberry Finn that it hit me. The older two, at ten and thirteen, had started up their own debate on which character was ultimately the most noble: Tom, or Huck, or Jim? The conversation got loud; much evidence was offered up. It was the stuff of a high school composition course, but the kids had taken it upon themselves, wanting to dig in and linger with a book that we’d come to love together.
I began to think about how my kids had become such insightful readers and writers. Sometimes they’ve seemed like strangely youthful English professors in their zeal and expertise. But none of what they know of literature has come from formal study or canned curriculum guides. It’s been built up from small conversations over the years: in the car, around the kitchen table, on the blue sofa in the family room, and especially, bundled with blankets on somebody’s bed.
When someone asks me to stop the story, I will always oblige.
This month we happily welcome Patricia Zaballos to the Being series. Patricia is a writer, homeschooling parent, knitter and urban bee keeper. Patricia writes about kid-centered learning and raising children to be writers on her blog, Wonder Farm, and recently published her first book, Workshops Work! A Parent’s Guide to Facilitating Writer’s Workshops for Kids.
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