When she isn’t building fairy villages out of moss and sticks and flowers, when she isn’t chalking rainbows and sloths onto sidewalks, when she isn’t dressing up the dog in ballerina tutus and cowboy bandannas, my daughter is reading.
She reads at home and at school and on the bus in between. “Just one more page,” is the standard refrain before bed. “Or four.” If someone asks, “Where’s Madeline?” the answer is likely sprawled out on the couch with a book, dreaming with her eyes open.
We have this in common. More often than not, I’m lost to the ether. Reading novels or comics or essays. Or writing them. And writing consists of more than simply typing. Sometimes, while eating dinner or raking leaves, I will go still and stare into the middle distance with a slack expression, muscling through a plot point. Or leave a pot boiling on the stove to scratch down a line of dialogue. A pen and yellow legal tablet are never far from my hand.
I’m always taking notes. A camera technique in a film. An article in a local paper. A conversation at the bar. A line in a song, a passage in a memoir. A hike in a marsh, a falcon in the sky. All of it feeds into me, and I greedily try to break it down into nourishment, something I can use on the page. Every day, through whatever I expose myself to, I’m learning to be a better writer.
Something similar is happening to Madeline now. She’s being fed. The books she’s reading are feeding her. Sustaining her. Through them she’s learning how to live. Parents always fuss over what their children eat, worrying about the vitamins or toxins that will impact their bodies. I worry about what Madeline reads. Not prohibitively. Just the opposite. I want her to gorge.
Because books don’t merely entertain. They incite action, create empathy, spark critical conversation and make you a better citizen and more fully realized human being. The more books she gobbles up, the more lives and worlds she has packed impossibly into her 9-year-old brain.
I imagine the inside of Madeline’s mind as a house. It’s a sunny, comfy sort of place. Lots of pillows and blankets to curl up with. A desk with drawers packed with fresh white paper and colored pencils sharpened to a point. In the fridge you can always find a raspberry soda and a Little Princess sushi roll. But in this house, new doors appear every day. One leads to a ballroom lit by floating candles. Another opens into a dust-clotted attic full of dolls with cracked porcelain faces. Hallways lengthen. Windows appear that offer views of a sandstorm in Egypt, a giant squid propelling itself through the murky ocean depths, a winter forest with a lamppost shining in it. Each book she pulls off the shelf opens up another secret passage. What kind of mansion will her mind become? This is where she’ll live as a woman, and I want the foundation to be strong.
Each night my wife and I read to her on a rotating schedule. Tonight I will crack open “A Wrinkle in Time,” and tomorrow my wife will read “The Witches.” We want her diet to be as diverse, as omnivorous as possible. We want her to read classics, and we want her to read whatever is rocketing to the top of the bestseller lists. We want her to read poetry and graphic novels, and we want her to read Newbery winners. We want her to read across religious and gender and cultural barriers. We want her to be swept away, but we want her to learn. So that she’s resilient enough to survive and open-minded enough to explore whatever life throws at her. So that she’s educated enough, strong enough to carve out her own place in the world.
My wife is a list-maker and she constantly readjusts our library and bookstore orders, queuing up “Anne of Green Gables,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Witches,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “Anya’s Ghost,” “Hidden Figures.” But Madeline also has her own ideas. When she was 6, she picked the novel “Inkheart” off the shelf at the bookstore. It’s as big as a brick, 560 pages. She had never read, on her own, anything that was remotely as long or as challenging. Although it took some time and a few breaks, she finished the damn thing. And to this day, it remains her favorite book.
Each weekday, around 4 p.m., the front door creaks open and booms shut. Two backpacks thump to the floor. It isn’t long after this — after the dog skitters across the hardwood to greet the kids, after they argue over who gets to use the bathroom first — that Madeline rushes into my office and tugs my hands away from the laptop and says, “Time to be done.”
But today she doesn’t come. I feel a little neglected. I cock my head and listen and hear only my 12-year-old son rattling a bowl full of cereal. “Where’s your sister?” I ask him, when I come upstairs, and he shrugs his shoulders.
I find her at the family computer. “Hey,” I say. “Remember that you’ve got to finish your chores before media.”
“I’m not doing media,” she says. “I’m writing a novel.”
I’ll admit that my black, poisonous, gravy-clotted heart beat a little faster then. “What? That’s amazing. Can I read it?”
We recently finished “The Hobbit.” This is the first novel I remember reading on my own, and it remains one of my favorites. I’m a nerdy enough Tolkien fan to have a map of Middle Earth as my phone shield, and I’m considering a Tree of Gondor tattoo on my shoulder. When we finished the book, I asked her what she thought. She absolutely loved it. “But …”
She scrunched up her face. “It’s kind of weird it’s all boys?”
She was right. I hadn’t noticed up until then, but the gender discrepancy is extreme enough that the word “she” only appears in the novel once. We talked about this criticism more when we watched the films and how much she enjoyed the addition of the female character Tauriel. The filmmakers felt the same way she did. They obviously loved the source material, but they weren’t afraid to challenge it.
Now I lean in to read what she has written.
“Once there was a hobbit, and when you read this story you might think this is a lot like ‘The Hobbit,’ and as a matter of fact it is. But this story is about a girl hobbit.”
When Madeline was a toddler, she used a possessive article in front of each noun. My brother, my piggy, my pineapple, she would say. “My share” was her standard declaration when she grabbed a cracker or climbed onto a swing or took her place at the front of a line. As though she already knew the world was hers to claim.
“How do you like my book?” she says, and I say, “I like it a lot. Keep going.”
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