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June 17, 2010

Great Expectations

Now that my older son is reading chapter books, I find myself champing at the bit to introduce him to the classics. No, I’m not bringing Dickens, Tolstoy, or Melville to bedtime reading, but I do long to start him on childhood favorites of mine that I’m just certain he’ll love as much as I did. (And yes, I see the big parental danger sign in that last sentence. I’ll come back to it.)

My wife and I did pretty much the same with picture books when Dash began reading those, of course. But there’s a difference, since chapter books come in so many different levels of sophistication and maturity, from the basic introductory readers all the way up to Finnegan’s Wake. And if I’m honest with myself, many of the books I’ve been thinking of introducing to my five-year-old lately are books I didn’t read myself until I was more like ten or twelve.

Despite that, I recently pulled my old copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth off the shelf. I knew some of the wordplay for which this book is justly renowned would go over Dash’s head at this point, but I thought the light, offbeat tone of the narrative would fit his sense of humor pretty well. (Plus there are all those great Jules Feiffer illustrations, which I knew he’d enjoy.) But as I opened it, I tried to remember when Tollbooth had become a cherished book for me. I couldn’t remember the precise age, but I was definitely a good deal older than five.

Still, the book wasn’t a failure with Dash by any means. We read it over several nights of bedtime reading, a few chapters at a time, and he was always ready to return to it each night. It did not become one of those sad, rejected chapter books that never get past the first evening or two, and then sit pathetically on the nightstand until I give up and put them back on the shelf. Dash liked the main characters, especially the trusty watchdog Tock, and the quest storyline. He liked the tone and the humor. He liked the book.

But I didn’t sense he was really into the book, not the way I had been. I’d supposedly prepared myself for this, having realized that Dash might still be a bit young for the weightier issues that make up much of the subtext of Tollbooth, or even that the book might not be as much to his taste as it had been for me. And yet...I couldn’t deny that I felt a little disappointment (which I concealed) that he didn’t just lurve it.

Which brings me back to that parental danger sign. There’s a certain hope in all parents, I think, when we introduce something we love to our kids, whether it be a favorite dessert or a treasured movie or book—and, yes, a certain amount of disappointment when they don’t appear to like it precisely as much as we did (or, worse yet, at all!). Mostly, we’re just after that rush that comes from watching our children experience something that blows them away; when we’ve primed ourselves to expect that, it’s disappointing not to get our fix.

But for me, there was something else, too, something a little uncomfortable: I kind of wanted my kid’s approval of my taste. I suppose even that’s natural enough in a way—I feel the same type of disappointment when a friend tells me she loathed a movie I liked and recommended, for instance. But I don’t want to burden my son with that kind of expectation, that kind of pressure to please me. Even though I’m not telling him openly that I really, really want him to like this book, I know he can probably sense it. (More and more, I come to know that kids sense everything.)

Now, I will certainly continue to bring the books and movies and everything else I loved as a kid to Dash’s attention when he seems ready for them (OK, maybe sometimes a little before). But I’m going to try to leave his personal experience of all this stuff in his own hands, and to keep my expectations—well, not necessarily low, but simply out of the equation as much as I can.

And maybe I’ll hold off on reading Philip Pullman’s (brilliant!) His Dark Materials series with Dash until he’s seven. Or at least six and a half.

[Photo: Whitney Webster]

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