J cannot read. This, however, has little to do with how many books he owns, or how many stories he knows and loves. He has learned to love books and stories because we read to him, and reading is about more than just the words on the paper, and the places they take you.
When I was 18, Reading Rainbow started airing. I watched Reading Rainbow…I didn’t have children until I was 26. I watched Reading Rainbow with TGG, and then J even before they were old enough for stories. Books were a staple in our everyday life…
My love affair with books started very early on in life. I had an uncle with a well-populated library, and I visited that library as soon as he drove off to work in the mornings. I would reconnoiter his bookshelves whenever I was sent in to ask him a question, bring him the mail, and so forth, and I’d locate the next selection I would extricate from the tightly packed shelves to read on the down low.
Among the books he had, one morning I happened upon a glossy cream-white spine among the many paperbacks and leather bounds. The book wasn’t new, but it was new to me, and I pulled it out and scurried away through the door that connected his bedroom to the one I shared with my aunt.
Going in and out of that room wasn’t easy. The space available to me was quite narrow, blocked with furniture, and there were latches -and no doorknobs- on both sides of the door. The eye hooks on each side weren’t even on the same level so it took a little bit of negotiation to unhook, and then re-hook them. Yes, my friends, there were doors that opened into the hallway, but the risk of being asked “what are you doing in your uncle’s room????” was quite high. My uncle, you see, was very particular about his things; everything was neatly organized, and he valued his privacy and the inner sanctum he had created for himself. Many a time I was chided for having used the pencil sharpener in his room, moving Don Quixote a centimeter to the left to grab a book that was behind him, and so forth. Stealth was my forte to a degree…I was easily startled by the creaking of floorboards and the sudden rising of voices from all around the house so I would, without wanting to, leave some sort of minimal trail of evidence behind me.
The book I found, with its creamy-white spine, was called El Polizón del Ulises, or The Stowaway of the Ulysses, and its author was Ana María Matute. The story revolves around a foundling who is raised by three spinsters in a rural area in Spain; the spinsters are three sisters with very distinct personalities, and Jujú at times feels like he can’t quite live up to all they expect from him. Jujú loves the sea (though he has never seen it,) and makes for himself a “ship” in the attic, and dreams of adventure and excitement. When these things come into his life, it is in the most unexpected way, and he experiences things that change him forever, that make him grow up…
I was raised by three aunts, and I -too- seemed to be in a world where what was expected of me surpassed what I could, in fact, do. I, too, had a galloping imagination, and my dreams were grand. Like my friend, Jujú, I eventually grew up. I didn’t grow up so much that I don’t still read this book every year. Like Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, Jujú and his “aunts” became a part of my family.
Of course, I went on to read many books over the years. I’ve read Ms. Matute’s work, and I’ve always loved the respect her work shows for children as characters, and as readers. Ms. Matute grew up during the Spanish Civil War, and her work often touched upon her experiences during that time.
Ana María Matute died today in Barcelona. She was 88 years old. A few years older than my mother, through her characters, she became part of my family. My uncle, my aunts, taught me to love books; they gave me books, or they read to me. I, in turn, have done the same with my children.
Why am I saying this? Well, we are up to our ears in technology these days. Wherever you go, people carry cellphones with them, and I’ve seen many parents handing over their iPhone to their kid so they will be “entertained” while waiting at the doctor. By the same token, I see a lot of parents surrounded by kids at the public library on Saturdays; I see a lot of kids participating in the activities the public library has to offer for them.
Being a parent is an interactive endeavor. You can buy your kids books, but it’s always best when you read to them, doing different voices for each character. You can tell your child a story, but it’s always best if you jump around, move your hands, change your facial expression as you go along. You can watch movies with your kids, but if you’re holding your cellphone in your hand, you’re not really WATCHING the movie with your kid. Listening to music with your kid is great, but it’s better if you dance, clap, hum, whoop…
I’ve often been asked if J likes being read to, and -from time to time- someone has asked if he even “cares.” I mean, they’ve said to me, does he even know what is happening? People have told me that reading to babies is “good and all that, but…do they understand????”
Kids understand that you’re spending time with them, that you’re offering them something for nothing in return. Kids find that you’re opening a door, and they might be tempted to open others and see what’s on the other side. While times have changed and books are no longer “just paper with words on it,” the value of the time one spends with a child is undiminished.
My uncle didn’t read to me; he was just not that type of person. He was an educator, and he recognized a hunger for knowledge and information when he saw it. My aunts read to me, and made every story (regardless of how familiar it already was) special and interesting, even in the re-telling for the millionth time.
When my uncle left that particular book, with its creamy-white spine and its boy surrounded by “aunts,” he left me something even better than just “a story.” My uncle knew that I’d recognize something of myself, my life experience in those pages, and that’s something every kid needs…
So, on this day, my friend Jujú and I are mourning the loss of his creator, and I am reminded of how important the simple act of giving a child a small world between two covers (or on a screen, if you prefer that) is so important.
Maybe, for starters, they won’t “get it,” or “understand,” but they will know you are there…and that is what truly counts.