So when we decided to spend an academic year in Central America, my biggest worry wasn’t Zika or typhoid, but a dearth of picture books. We limited ourselves to a single duffel bag of possessions per person, for the year. Liam could get by with digital novels, but Reid, 6, was just on the cusp of learning to read. It seemed to me we had a choice. We could forgo binoculars, rain jackets and hiking shoes to fill one of our four bags with a scant 40 picture books to be reread dozens of times throughout the year, or we could force Reid to go cold turkey on books.
Feeling like a bad parent, I chose the latter.
Last August, we settled into our home in Monteverde, a small village on the Continental Divide in Costa Rica. Unlike most towns there, the village does have a library. It’s never locked, allowing for 24-hour, self-service checkout on the honor system. Volunteers routinely index donations and check the collection of more than 20,000 books against the card catalogue. There is just one disappointment: the picture books. The yellow spine of a dog-eared 1969 edition of “Curious George Rides a Bike,” originally donated to a school in Colorado, is the sort of book that stands out on the shelves.
For a while, Reid got by on the materials his teacher sent home to practice reading — three easy-reader books per week, including two in Spanish and one in English. But these simple story lines were no substitute for our many favorites at home, such as “Harry and Horsie,” “The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County” or the zany, numerically themed tale of “Zero the Hero.”
Our lifeline came in a monthly care package of graphic novels from my parents. Words per pound, graphic novels pack a punch, while also providing the kids with the illustrations they craved. Often exhausted at the end of the school day, Liam and Reid happily escaped into their graphic novels. They devoured “Red’s Planet,” featuring a kid who travels to a stunning planet and becomes a high-top-wearing alien; “Mighty Jack,” set in a magical — and sometimes hostile — garden; and “Hilda and the Midnight Giant,” depicting a spunky protagonist in a Scandinavian wonderland inhabited by invisible elves, giants and an antlered fox. These characters’ attempts to make sense of their awesome and sometimes frustratingly unfamiliar surroundings were cathartic as my kids navigated new norms around language, bullying and friendship.
Their favorite books depicted the seemingly bipolar drives of young children: wanting to throw on a cape — or to grab a gun, frankly, regardless of their parents’ pacifist proclivities — to take on the bad guys, or their need to cuddle and coo over a fluffy, big-eyed stuffed animal. Some books packaged this combination of valor and cuteness into one, such as “Tib & Tumtum,” about a cave boy and his adorable dinosaur friend, and the “Squish” series, which follows a gentle amoeba who sometimes imagines himself a superhero in his pond.
Our favorite was the “Lunch Lady” series, following a team of school cooks who use corn-dog nunchucks and mustard grappling hooks to fight crime, aided by their favorite kid school-breakfast eaters. Most vexing, and ultimately most rewarding, was “Meanwhile,” a choose-your-own-adventure puzzle that we couldn’t put down until we’d solved it. In our last package, my parents sent “Lowriders in Space,” with its ballpoint-pen illustrations of a trio of mechanics — an antelope, octopus and mosquito — who design a car so hip it takes off into space. My kids loved all the Spanish words in the novel and were inspired to draw their own dream vehicles.
As we prepared to return to Maine, I wistfully eyed our prized collection of graphic novels, which we donated to the Monteverde library. I’ll miss our family knowing a set of books so well that each character and illustration is a shared reference. I’ll also miss that magical silence that took over our house each month after the kids tore open a new package of graphic novels and disappeared for hours to read.
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