Once upon a lap: reading memories

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 2, 2011

By Susie Wilde
I grew up in a house full of sadness, flavored with sudden, angry outbursts and later, dramatic scenes of remorse. The one island of safety and comfort was reading aloud. My motherís voice became different when she read aloud, softer and somehow magical. When she opened the cover of a book, we were setting off on a journey, embarking on an instant trip to a place far away from day-to-day cares. We lost ourselves in the halls Kenneth Grahamís ěToad Hall,î and I believed she was all the characters at once. I snuggled against her and saw amazing illustrations in addition to those scattered in the book.
There was the magic of Mary Poppins. Like Jane and Michael, I was wowed by a character that could remove and dole out fingers that tasted like gingerbread. I knew that Iíd better dash when my mother quoted Mary P., ěSpit, spot, into bed!î Mary Poppins had the perfect blend of a sternness you could accept because of the enchantment youíd never expect.
Our shared reading wove tender threads into the coarse fabric of our life. Reading and re-reading ěWinnie the Poohî over the years, we decided which character we most resembled. The characters became friends and we built a literary language on them. ěStop acting like such an Eeyoreî meant it was time to put moping aside. Commands issued with character play pulled my mouth up into a smile and instantly stopped the most severe sulk.
As I grew, the reading didnít stop. We visited isles of poetry like ěSilver Penniesî and Milneís ěNow We are Six.î We voyaged to dark lands like Treasure Island where the memory of the black spot still brings back a chill. I brought home the delights of ěThe Little Princeî when I reached high school. I have an image of myself at a similar age, perched on a counter, reading aloud Paul Gallicoís ěThe Snow Gooseî because dinner had to be cooked and we couldnít bear to be torn away from the storyís end.
My grown-up life has been devoted to childrenís books. Itís like payback for all those lovely moments of literary bliss that got me through. There were plenty of hours of reading alone, escaping down reading literary rabbit holes with Alice, gobbling romantic pulp about girls going to prom, sleuthing with Nancy Drew. But the times I remember best were read aloud times. That was when I fell in love with words, was romanced by stories, heard characters actually speak in my mind and developed a language that lifted me out of temporary tempers, and launched discussions about ideas, feelings, and the way life worked. In those quiet times, I opened my heart and wondered without worrying.
My children brought me such joy, but insecurity too. Would I be able to do an even OK job without having a clue about what good parenting looked like? I drew comfort from the thought that there was one thing I knew – sharing books with children made an island of peace. With books as my compass, I knew I could navigate this strange new life course. And sure enough books became a center of my parenting. They were mood changers, mood elevators (moving both up and down as needed), sources of comfort, sources of pleasure—all that I had experienced and remembered from my own childhood.
I was so convinced I began taking the word to other parents and began a business called Once Upon a Lap where I toted a crate of new and exciting books and talked about them to new and excited parents. I figured selling the books would fund the presentations. I was heavily booked, but this enthusiasm had no monetary reflection. I was however able to offset my book addiction with the pitiful gross. It became clear to me that I wanted to sell reading, not books. So after several years, I began presenting, sometimes with my infant baby, Emmy, hung from a sling about my neck.
About this time, my husband asked me to look at our budget and it was clear that an overwhelming expense was created by my childrenís book passion. It was then I put together my love of educating, writing and books. I became a reviewer. A childrenís book reviewer doesnít get rich. Except if you consider books a wealth, for though my cash flow was not so great, my book flow was incredible. Every week I would receive anywhere from two to 50 books. It was like Christmas at my house. I tore into boxes and envelopes to reveal treasures all of which I shared with my young children.
And I began to see how childrenís books had changed our lives. Their characters came alive in our family. My children would quote hunks of books in their funny little voices. ěLetís risk it,î my son would squeak in a voice just like Steigís Dr. DeSoto.
I well remember my husbandís first read-aloud tears. First John Gardnerís ěStone Foxî did him in and then EB Whiteís Charlotte got to him. Death can be hard in novels, especially when youíve come to know the character so well. Laughter and tears are spectacular coming from a read-aloud dad who was never, himself, read to much!
Once I started reviewing books, I varied my life between reading, reviewing and writing. My children were my gauges and we read all the time. Weíd start with a giant pile of shining new books by the beds, sorting them into piles as we went. They tell me when a book didnít interest them and their instincts were usually right. They changed my opinions by reading aloud. Those thick Brian Jacques books that put me off? I began to look forward to each and every one, hoping there would be lots of mole-speech to dramatize. My husband was best at mole-speech. I was famous for reading in my sleep. Iíd be reading a book, Iíd drop off until a small elbow landed a swift blow to my ribs and a small angry voice would tell me, ěMom, youíre reading in your sleep again.î
Best of all, I loved sharing the books that my mother once shared with me. I was eager for that, so eager that I was sorely disappointed when I tried Winnie-the-Pooh and it got the thumbs down when my children were young. One of my best shared book experiences came later from that book. For some reason, I pulled it out again when my daughter was in fifth grade. Never had I appreciated the writing so much as when I read it aloud and heard through her delight. It was the first time she seemed to understand how you could use writing for effects, not just for telling a great story. It was when she began to understand style. We were reading ěIn Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Waterî and there, near the end, we found a passage that enchanted us. Hereís the scene: during a flood Piglet is first stranded on a tree limb and then imprisoned by Owl who ětold him a very long story about an aunt who had once laid a seagullís egg by mistake and the story went on and on rather like this sentence until Piglet who was listening out of his window without much hope, went to sleep quietly and naturally, slipping slowly out of the window towards the water until he was only hanging on by his toes, at which moment luckily, a sudden loud squawk from Owl, which was really part of the story, being what his aunt said, woke the Piglet up and just gave him time to jerk himself back into safety and say, ěHow interesting, and did sheî when- well you can imagine his joy when at last he saw the good ship, The Brain of Pooh (Captain, C. Robin; 1st Mate, P. Bear) coming over the sea to rescue him.
And that is really the end of the story, and as I am very tired after that last sentence, I think I shall stop there.î
There was straight-faced humor, the clever use of punctuation (or lack thereof), the intrusive narrator, and probably a lot more. But all we knew was how it made us laugh. We read it again and again. Then we interrupted her brotherís homework because he had to hear it. Then we told her dad about it and read it once more. By then it was bedtime and she cozied down and I kissed her goodnight with a furnace of warm feelings; those remembered, the ones that were current, and imagining what we would share in the future.
Susan Wilde is a book reviewer and commentator. She reads wildly and is also a writing coach.