I began by placing my Norton anthologies of British literature in my one-year-old daughter’s bedroom. This would make putting her to sleep more enjoyable for me and also lay the foundations for a strong vocabulary, a bedrock of literary remembrance, exposure, and appreciation.
First, I went to William Blake’s poems about the lamb and the tiger, the ‘songs of innocence.’
Soon I was covering old favourites from the Romantics — Keats and Coleridge. I must have bored her with Tennyson, but, hey, remember, that was in large part my purpose: induce somnolence. Then I rediscovered those magnificent lines:
(And) this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
On the one hand I felt a twinge of guilt for reading to Ada something as pessimistic and world-weary as ‘Ulysses.’ But then, hey, it little harms an idle daughter to hear this variety of expression, syntax, diction. Not to mention that I am myself grown weary by the end of the day…
Over the subsequent 2+ years, Ada’s heard selections from Gertrude Stein (not a poet, but, okay, Tender Buttons anyone?), Shakespeare, Walt Whitman (his long-winded lists, gigantic inventories, structures of joyful repetition — fantastic somnolents!), Eric Ormsby, A.R. Ammons, Jacques Prévert, Wallace Stevens, and others. But poetry readings only come after a story of my daughter’s own choosing. These daughter-loved titles include:
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Jen Bryant; illustrated by Melissa Sweet)
King Midas and the Golden Touch (Charlotte Craft; illustrated by K.Y. Craft)
Barbara Reid’s books, including The Party and The Subway Mouse (illustrated with plasticine for a textured 3-D effect)
books in the Rupert series (Ian Robinson; illustrated by John Harrold)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (Shel Silverstein)
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: or, the Hithering, Dithering Djinn (Donald Barthelme (!!!))
books from Stan & Jan Berenstain
almost anything by Dr. Seuss
anything by Richard Scarry
books in the Babar series (Jean de Brunhof) (My wife has told me time and again to stop with the Babar on account of it being racist at times, but I just skip over the parts about cannibals when I read from it…)
Notably absent: Barbara Reid’s The Party, The Subway Mouse, Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine.
Q: But what about e-readers? What about e-readers?
A: “Dad, can I play with the Kindle?”
I remembered Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White with sentimentality and nostalgia, but looking back at it, trying to read it to my older daughter nine months ago, I came to hate it. White’s sentences are flat, wishy-washy. There’s not enough substance there.
I tried reading Kenneth Grahame’s A Wind in the Willows to the entire family aloud for a few consecutive after-dinner sessions, but my elder daughter’s interest flagged. I still have hope for Willows, even if we do lack a fireplace.
What I read as a kid:
The Mouse Book, by Helen Piers (the first book I ever read)
Sundry choose-your-own-adventure books
My Teacher Is an Alien, and sequels, Bruce Coville
The Goosebumps series, R.L. Stine
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, and sequels, Louis Sachar
Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and sequels, Alvin Schwartz
Finding movies that are enjoyable and appropriate has proven much more difficult than finding good books. Movies that are approved for my daughter(s) include: The Polar Express; My Neighbor Totoro; Kiki’s Flying Delivery Service; Ponyo; Richard Scarry’s Busytown (& related flicks); the Planet Earth series; Alfons Åberg; Manhattan (W. Allen); The General (B. Keaton); Zazie dans le métro (except for the end…).We’re still trying some out.
Most films that are made for children are, in my and my wife’s consensus opinion, terrible. If Dr. Seuss saw The Cat in the Hat, starring Mike Myers, I’m betting that he would shit his pants and then vomit at how his work has been misappropriated (figuratively speaking, of course — it’s sheer travesty). Pretty much anything that comes out of a Disney enterprise is off limits.
Problems: gender portrayal (Disney films wickedly enforce a nasty Princess/beauty complex on their young female viewers); elements of racism (see the portrayal of the Taiwanese babysitter in The Cat in the Hat as overweight, slothful, and of her country’s parliament as degenerate to the point of brawling… utterly tasteless (I turn up the song, ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn,’ by Public Enemy, dance with the daughters).)
Cautiously we wend our way through the stacks, selectively cultivating taste, habit, appetites. We — my daughter, her mother, and I — proceed in our reading, treading gingerly, wary of unwanted influences, voracious and eclectic in our habits. And we shout unequivocally: hallelujah for books!