At my first parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the newer instructors asked me why my daughter would often re-read books that were “too easy” for her.
My daughter was already a strong reader by then. She’d taught herself, although we didn’t know about her new skill until sometime before her third birthday; she held up a cup at a restaurant, pointed to the words, and told us, “This says, Have fun.”
It did say, Have fun. We rushed through dinner and zipped home so that I could hold up magazines and novels and point to random (easy) words to ask her what they were. By the end of the evening, we had confirmed that she knew how to read.
There was no stopping her after tha—no.
That’s not true.
That makes it sound like it was never-ending progress: a rush toward fluency and proficiency when it was not like that at all.
Yes, every day, month, and year, she read harder, more complicated things. But as that teacher noted, she would also go back and re-read books—picture books, board books, books without words. She went forward. She went back. She re-read more than she read. We didn’t push her; she was in charge of her pace. The main thing that we did was to make sure there was always something for her to read. We took her to bookstores and libraries. We let her pick out and renew what interested her. We read to her when that was what she wanted. We left her alone when she needed that, too.
It didn’t occur to us to do anything different. So when the teacher asked us why—more out of curiosity than judgment—why my daughter re-read so often, I was surprised. I muttered something about familiar books being comforting, and the teacher seemed content with that. It never occurred to me to tell my daughter not to re-read. I had done the same as a child, too. And for me, yes, re-reading was a way to soothe myself. But re-reading was also a way of marking how much I had learned.
The text of a book doesn’t change—most of the time. A couple of authors have on occasion gone back to update details. (For example, Judy Blume altered a scene in later editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so that the protagonist used stick-on maxi pads instead of the belt and fastener that was prevalent when her classic children’s novel was first published in 1970.)
But for the most part, what changes is not the book, but the reader.
There are the jokes written for adults (by adults) in stories meant for children that most kids aren’t likely to find funny until later. Or there are the scenes where there are emotional currents that children—the protagonists of the book and maybe the young reader—don’t necessarily understand.
For example, I was reading middle-grade writer Susan Tan’s latest book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic recently, and came across this passage:
Until right as I was about to put together the triceratops’s tail, I heard a conversation that made me stop and pay attention.
They were still talking about the wedding. And my mom said, “Just remember, this is your day. All that matters is you and Paul. Everyone else will deal.”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “Also the trick is knowing how to manage Mom. She can be a handful, but you just have to know how to keep her happy.”
“That’s easy for you to say, big brother,” Auntie Eva said. “You’re the son—you just have to show up and be yourself and you’ll make Mom and Dad happy. I have to be perfect…”
Cilla is an optimistic, aspiring writer. She’s in third grade and happens to be biracial. Her beloved aunt is about to get married, and the event brings out tensions in the family that Cilla doesn’t quite understand. Adults may be able to unpack all that’s going on, but Cilla’s confusion—her growing knowledge that the grown-ups see all of the events of life quite differently—mirrors the younger reader’s. In a way, the fact that this book may be understood on more than one level means that this book is meant to be remembered and re-read.
But of course, sometimes, re-reading doesn’t make a book seem better.
This column, of course, is all about re-reading. It’s about looking at how books shaped me, and also at how my perception of those books has changed now that I’m an adult. At times it has been a delight and a comfort to greet my old friends. Sometimes it has been painful but rewarding. Sometimes it’s been shit.
Recently, my husband was flipping through the channels when he happened upon an episode of The Golden Girls, a classic NBC sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992. As soon as I saw it, I said something about how often I’d watched the show in re-runs after school. I remembered watching TV in the basement, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was a latchkey kid and spent hours alone except for books and the television. I knew even then that the show wasn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t matter. It was a comforting place where I could settle.
Of course—of course—as soon as I said something about this to my husband, the following happened onscreen:
Teacher Dorothy, played by the great Bea Arthur, is doing roll call for her adult education class. She says, “Jim Shu.” No one answers. She says, “Oh, very funny. Gym shoe.”
Then an Asian man, played by Ralph Ahn, stands up and says, “I am Jim Shu.”
Dorothy apologizes profusely. She explains, “I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Jim Shu looks at her up at down and says, “I don’t think I could drink that much sake.”
The live studio audience laughs wildly, even though the line doesn’t really make any sense. Also, sake is Japanese, Jim Shu is probably Chinese, but who can tell the difference? LOL ASIANS AND THEIR FUNNY-SOUNDING NAMES FOR THEMSELVES AND THINGS.
It was like a kick in the stomach. But at the time I first saw it, I probably thought I should laugh along. Even while sitting alone in the basement.
I guess it’s a measure of what a person I’ve become—Oh, look how I’ve grown—when the space for comfort is no longer comfortable.
And I don’t wish that the children’s books I’ve re-read as an adult were different, nor do I wish to unlearn what I know now in order to feel soothed by old, familiar fictional people and places.
But if I did have to do it over again, I might answer my daughter’s teacher a different way. If she asked why my daughter returned to books that were too easy for her, I would tell her that in re-reading, my child was exploring the spaces she’d been in, furnishing them with new knowledge. And in doing so, she was asking if she needed more.
The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book by Bill Watterson is one of the few books I’ve kept from my childhood.
The book was a compilation of full-color, multi-panel Sunday strips from Watterson’s iconic cartoon, which ran from 1985 to 1995. At one point I had all of the Calvin and Hobbes collections. I don’t know how or where I lost them. My copy of the Lazy Sunday Book is now falling apart.
The strip is about a boy, Calvin, and his stuffed/real tiger, Hobbes. Hobbes is inquisitive, often hungry, more cerebral than his companion, more inclined to inject a note of caution. He’s also very much a cat. Calvin is an intelligent, reckless, and not unfocused boy; but it’s clear that he prefers to keep his attention to his own imaginative world, which puts him at odds with the one his parents live in. Only Calvin sees Hobbes as a real tiger—his parents and most of the people around him see Hobbes as a stuffed animal; the strip plays off the tension between Calvin’s elaborate fantasies and the “real” things happening behind it. When Calvin plays Spaceman Spiff, he soaks his neighbor/classmate/enemy Susie Derkins (who is at first drawn as a huge bug-eyed alien) with a ray gun that turns out to be a water pistol. In another strip, we’re shown a dinosaur chomping through his meal—until Calvin’s mother yells at him to use better table manners; then we see a Tyrannosaurus Rex shamefacedly eating with a fork and knife, knobby elbows tucked in.
I loved Calvin and Hobbes from the day the first black-and-white strip appeared in my childhood local newspaper, The Winnipeg Free Press. (Wikipedia tells me this day was November 18, 1985.)
My parents subscribed to the Free Press, which had a full-page black-and-white comics spread on weekdays and a color funny paper on Sundays. Along with Calvin and Hobbes, I read Peanuts, Cathy, Bloom County, and many others; I was so devoted to the funnies that when I went away to university, my parents saved great piles of them, and even though I told them they didn’t need to do so, I’d go through those when I came back home, too.
I loved Watterson’s illustrations, which, depending on the bent of Calvin’s imagination, looked like lush watercolors or saturated, eye-popping 1950s superhero comics. He plays with perspective in some panels, and in others he tries styles of art from different periods. And always, the dialog is smart, funny—sometimes heartbreaking.
I didn’t always identify with Calvin. (As a child, I was more of a Susie Derkins.) I enjoyed Calvin—his creativity and his intelligence. But despite that, Watterson never hides how difficult Calvin is. He’s hard on babysitters (and his babysitter is also hard on him). He’s greedy, mischievous. He isn’t a kid who gets As on his report card. Sometimes, he sits at his desk dreaming. Often, he gets in trouble with his teacher, Miss Wormwood.
Maybe at the time, I gave a thought to why such a smart kid had so much trouble at school, why he had no non-tiger friends. Only now do I begin also to think about Calvin’s frustration—all the characters’ frustrations, really.
Calvin’s dad is a enthusiast of the outdoors and cold weather; he bikes to work at his corporate job—and comes homes to chaos and disappointment. In one strip, he goes out early on his boat during vacation. “This is the life! A brisk swim at dawn, a morning out on the boat.” But when he returns with a freshly caught fish, Calvin’s mother sits bleary-eyed at the table and says, “You eat your dead animals. All I want is some coffee.” Calvin complains that there is no TV on this holiday. The dad’s balloon is punctured.
Calvin’s mom is a sharp woman who is clearly not willing to be an acquiescent, smiling spouse. She’s often exasperated by her difficult kid. And Calvin’s neighbor/enemy Susie Derkins is a rule-following, at times anxious perfectionist who has big ambitions. One time, when Calvin does ask Susie to play, she takes over: “OK, we’ll play house now. I’ll be the high-powered executive wife. The tiger here can be my unemployed housekeeping husband…” Calvin immediately regrets inviting Susie, but oblivious, she takes off, saying, “I’m off to Wall Street. Don’t wait up.”
At other times, Susie’s annoyance with Calvin often ironically results in her abandoning decorum and rules as she explodes over his antics.
In all of the human characters in the strip, there is a mismatch between their ideals and what they have right now: the dad would like a more outdoorsy, enthusiastic family; the mom would like a more sedate life; Susie has a clear vision of what she will do in the future and worries about how she can put herself on the right path now. And Calvin—well, the whole strip is really about how in real life a six-year-old is pretty powerless—forced to take baths when adults make them, told to sit in school instead of being allowed to have space adventures.
I find myself more in sympathy with Calvin now.
Childhood can be lonely and frustrating. Kids are stuck in an adult reality learning rules that don’t seem to make sense, conventions that people already seem to know—or assume one should know. I don’t blame Calvin for taking to his own worlds, despite the havoc that he wreaks on the adults and other people in his life. At this point, I probably have more in common with Calvin’s parents than with the kids. But paging through Bill Watterson’s Lazy Sunday Book, I laugh out loud at Calvin and Hobbes’s quips, I marvel at the illustrations, and I find myself remembering and holding onto my enjoyment for just a minute longer—just another minute—before Monday morning comes.