My daughter, Alison, has always been voraciously verbal. Once, as a tiny two-year-old, she curled up next to me on the couch, insisting that I read my book aloud. When I obliged with lines from Virgil’s Aeneid, expecting her to sate her curiosity and wander away, she stayed. For about twenty minutes, we were two souls, spellbound—she by the poetry and I by her childlike allegiance to it. I had thought this a one-time deal, but she has repeated the experiment over the years with such choice samplings as the Odyssey and The Plasma Formulary (that last a remnant from my husband’s time at the Air Force Academy).
While her interest in the epics waned over time, I did take her curiosity as a sign of readiness for some meatier fare, so we began reading The Little Prince at bedtime instead of our usual picture books. Since then, we’ve read many “big kid” books, keeping a simple, colorful commonplace book together to chronicle our journey through Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, even A Child’s History of the World. Alison is four years old now and can scarcely wait to finish one book to begin the next.
Not so my son, Jude. At fifteen months old, he strongly prefers picture books to lengthier stories and known favorites to new forays. His perennial choice is Where the Wild Things Are, which he vehemently pushes into my face as I read about Argentinosauruses or Greek mythology to Alison. He loves to roar with the wild things and to chant the forest alive every night, gurgling “grew and grew” like a toddler Totoro.
I should clarify that I find my son’s taste as enjoyable as my daughter’s. I firmly believe that Where the Wild Things Are is the child’s first Homer and I fight tears every night as Max follows the scent of his mother’s cooking home. Mrs. Darling still leaves the window open, the hand-built bed still awaits the return of Odysseus, the father still runs to greet the prodigal son…and Max’s supper is still hot. God is in his heaven; all is right with the world.
Still, it is a humorous task, attempting to serve the separate but equally intense appetites of my menagerie each evening. Once bored by her little brother’s obsession with Max’s journey, Alison has now begun to help me “read” it to him, acting out each illustration and providing sound effects with gusto. She has even on occasion recited it from memory as I leaf through the pages.
I find incorporating Jude into his big sister’s readings more challenging. One night, as I read Jill Barklem’s magical Brambly Hedge to Alison and tried to avoid the battered Wild Things he brandished dangerously near my face, I tried to pull Jude into the story by offering him an imaginary strawberry from the lusciously illustrated page.He looked at me in confusion until I “ate” the berry and offered him another. Then, as he caught on to the game, his eyes widened, and he eagerly plucked a whole fistful of “berries” and stuffed it into his mouth. When I turned the page to a new (and berry-free) illustration, he did it again. Now he eats imaginary fruit from whatever page I’m reading—even if there is nothing but text on the page—his eyes aglow with joy.
My first impulse was, of course, to laugh; but as I watched my son snatching up words like sweet, ripe fruit, I found myself suddenly tearful, suddenly urgent, suddenly in a kind of strangling prayer. Yes, my Jude, taste and see. Alison, come taste, too; you must never grow too old to gather this fruit. Taste and see Ronja’s kindness, Mole’s loyalty, Peter Pan’s wonder. Taste and see the open window, the hand-hewn bed, your father running barefoot, your supper steaming on the bedside table. Feast upon the Word incarnate; feast upon the Types embodied in your storybooks. Oh, taste and see, little one! Taste and see.