Mostly, I shun parenting books these days, having had my fill when Dash was a baby and I was still convinced that somebody, somewhere, had had this model before and had helpfully published the manual. Once I figured out that this wasn't going to happen, I became bitter and cynical and decided to take all my advice from trusted figures and random strangers on the Internet instead, because that seemed much less stressful. But as the kids get older, we're moving into new territory, and since I really do want to raise readers - after all, I was one, and I thought it was great - I leafed through this particular tome with some amount of interest.
A heading caught my eye - something about why children should be reading (or have read to them) chapter books. Why should they, I wondered? Apparently it's ideal for helping train their memories to recall what's gone before and predict what might come after - all the skills they need for analytical reading later on. All righty, then. But I had tried starting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Dash a year or so ago, and he just hadn't had the attention span. I'd mostly forgotten about it since, and our library haul continued to be a stream of not-too-long, nicely illustrated picture books that would keep the attention of both 6- and 4-year-old, as well as one or two mind-bendingly tedious Dora or Diego books and maybe a Star Wars easy reader to entice Dash to practice.
But most nights now, Mabel goes straight to bed before Dash's storytime - I try to do some reading with her around lunchtime instead. So keeping the four-year-old's interest doesn't really need to be in the mix. And having seen the piece about chapter books, one night a couple of weeks ago when I was doing bedtime by myself, I asked Dash if he'd like us to start Charlotte's Web.
"Is that the one about the spider?" he asked.
"Yes. Do you know about it?"
"I know what happens. The spider dies at the end. Daddy told me."
Okay. I'm not sure how, but for some reason the denoument of the children's classic had slipped out on the way to school one morning. Dash didn't mind, and was willing to start the book anyway. (I think it's easier for him if the stress of the unknown is tempered a bit.) I opened the paperback copy that I had picked up second-hand some time in the dim and distant past when I was ten or eleven. (Or younger: I think I remember my Dad reading it to me and doing the voices. So maybe I was seven.) The pages are yellowed and a bit crispy, and the cover has been so creased that it's smoothly wrinkled all over, but it's perfectly functional. There are line drawings every few pages, which helps the novice chapter-book reader.
All the same, I was surprised when Dash was still listening at the end of the first chapter, which to my mind was not all that thrilling and contained some puzzling references. I remember being a little mystified by the school bus, since we didn't have those in Ireland - not that that's a problem for Dash - and finding the brother's name, Avery, very odd. The mid-century rural American setting was almost as unfamiliar to Dash's ears as it had been to my suburban Irish ones thirty years earlier, but he didn't seem to mind. I quizzed him gently at the end of each part to make sure he was following along, and with some prompting it seemed he had gleaned the main points. So we continued.
I read it for two nights and then his Dad took over. Dash started telling me what was going on in the farmyard every day. From my place beside Mabel, as she dropped off, I could hear B in Dash's room doing the voices just the way my Dad used to - the goose and the rat and Mister Zuckermann and everyone else.
They finished Charlotte a few nights ago and started straight into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the copy I'd had the foresight to bring, with its sequel, from my bedroom bookshelves in Dublin one or two trips ago. (My bedroom remains, for now, just as it always was, and functions as a handy library for my Dad, who picks up some obscure required literature from my English degree every now and then and milks it for every drop of Victorian wisdom. Nobody looks at all the books that are my real treasures: the small shelf of young-adult fiction right beside the bed. I'm keeping them all for Mabel.)
Charlie proved so exciting that B had to read six chapters on the first night. Dash didn't want to go to sleep that night, begging to find out what was going to happen next:
"Just tell me, Mummy, does he get to go to the chocolate factory?"
"Listen. It's a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Do you think it's all about how a boy called Charlie didn't get to go to a chocolate factory?"
"Oh. Good point. .... But does he get to go?"
I put his mind at ease on that point and he finally went to bed.
Can you imagine what the suspense will be like when we start with Harry Potter? And how soon can we do that, do you think? I have the box set (UK editions, of course) at home, and I can bring it over any time...