My Son In Books

When we were on holiday this summer, my son bought a book for the first time in his life. To say I was gobsmacked is something of an understatement. He is fourteen now, and since we finally gave up with the tradition of bedtime stories a couple of years ago, he hasn’t read a single book to himself. I’ve tried to tempt him in every way I know how, still giving him a book or two at Christmas, placing some interesting-looking volume beside him on the desk for the moments when he’s hanging about in World of Warcraft, offering to read (in some desperation) while he’s on the computer. But no, nothing has shaken him from his book-free stance. I wondered what on earth could have induced him to part with his cash. Which author had finally broken through his indifference? I asked if I could look inside the bag.

Sea Fishing Properly Explained?’ I murmured incredulously.
‘Yes,’ said my son. ‘I thought it looked quite good.’

As far as I was concerned only one thing was properly explained, and that was how come I’d been unable to guess his literary interests. Still, when we were on holiday one afternoon as the rain poured down, I did manage another mini-coup. I’d taken along a couple of books that would do for family reads, among them the magnificent David Sedaris. Surely no one could fail to be moved by his account of rendering his hamster unconscious by the adroit addition of vodka to its water dish, and then placing it in the freezer, to see whether it could be resurrected with no memory of life as an alcoholic. This did indeed prove to be a crowd-pleaser, but the next story I had to skip, as it concerned Sedaris’s older brother and his excessive use of expletives.

‘You can’t expect your mother to read a story like that out loud,’ I explained. ‘And if I bleeped the worst of it out I don’t think there’d be enough left to make sense.’

We moved on, but later I found my son reading the story to see what he’d missed. Naturally this provoked any number of cunning plans in which I began, but refused to continue with, all kinds of unsuitable books – A Clockwork Orange, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, just about anything by Bret Easton Ellis, well, suggestions on a postcard, please. I keep hoping my son will return to reading one day and in the meantime you may imagine that I do plenty of modeling in his presence.

Yesterday I felt very nostalgic, putting together a book list for my colleague who has a nine-year-old son. Oh, those were indeed the days of fabulous reading. I would read to my son every night, but I particularly loved it when we’d got beyond picture books and could read a proper story. One of the first books we read together was The Wizard of Oz, which is by no means a fusty old classic, but rather a thrilling and compulsive read as Dorothy and her companions encounter all kinds of dangers on their route to the Emerald City. Then there was the magnificent Anthony Horowitz with his comedy detective duo, the Diamond Brothers, and later the boy spy Alex Rider. The great thing about reading to children is that they are completely uncritical and you can experiment. Horowitz is a wonderful author for multiple nationalities, which means multiple accents. I was always game for this, although I do recall one impossible encounter between a Russian spy, and a South American hitman that took place at a Scottish airport. For a brief while, in the confusion, everyone was Welsh. Thankfully, it seemed to pass by unnoticed.

One summer we broke the back of Harry Potter, reading volumes two, three and four. My son liked the main characters well enough, but what he really appreciated were the antics of the cheeky twins, Fred and George. He loved a book that would make him laugh, and he loved the fierce pull of an exciting plot. One of the last authors we regularly read was E. E. Richardson, whose horror stories were low on gore but high on that don’t-dare-read-on/can’t-put-it-down factor. We had to decide in the end to read them after dinner, because they were too scary for the hour before bedtime (I was as much behind this policy decision as my son). Although he was always pushing, pushing me to read just one more chapter, let’s get past the exciting bit, I’ll never sleep otherwise, and so on. Obviously I was a complete sucker for this technique and many nights ended in the triumph of a far later bedtime than was acceptable, because we had to see our characters to safety.

On the whole, my son felt the lack of plot, and whilst he enjoyed pretty much everything we read, he baulked at books that didn’t have a real quest at their center. ‘When is the thing that this book’s about going to start happening?’ he kept asking during one particular book, the second in a series in which the author was obviously struggling to find a story. But the great exception to this rule was a book called Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s about a small town at the foot of a mountain in Wales where nothing ever happens. Except that the mountain contains the safe vaults in which the treasures of the National Gallery are stored in times of crisis. The pictures end up in the mountain again, and by various routes and means they start to have a positive and ultimately life-changing effect on the lives of the inhabitants. It’s an utterly charming book, funny, engaging, wise. ‘You know, nothing seems to be happening,’ my son commented at one point, ‘but I just don’t want it to end.’

My husband used to tick me off because these were the years when we parents were supposed to listen regularly to our children read. I did try sometimes to get my son to kick us off, but let’s face it, I hogged the bedtime reading session. I loved reading, he loved listening and we were too content to really make the effort to alter that. But there was one set of circumstances that made us swap around. The very nature of children’s books means that all too often, something agonizingly touching happens – children are reunited with lost parents, beloved family pets die, losers, loners and outcasts find themselves treasured and protected. Every so often my voice would get wobblier and wobblier, until I risked a glance up at my audience to see if I’d been rumbled. I would usually find him, peering over the wooden slats on the side of his bed, a look of indulgent patience on his face. ‘Shall I finish that for you?’ he’d ask kindly, and stretch out his hand. Really, it was David Sedaris and the expletives all over again, only in a different context. If I want him to read, I should learn from this. He will read the things I won’t – no wonder Sea Fishing Properly Explained looked so good…

21 thoughts on “My Son In Books

  1. Thank you for recalling many fond memories of the years I read to my son. He loved being read to, and this continued even into his teen years when I read aloud from his summer reading list for school while he drew (his favorite activity at that age).

    But he wasn’t really an independent reader like me, by which I mean he didn’t carry books around obsessively to read at meals or in waiting rooms or even whilst waiting in traffic. In recent years, however, that seems to have changed. He’s been here visiting this week, and when he’s home he always makes a trek to the local bookstore we frequented when he was a child. Last night he came in proudly waving his bag. “I love books!” he proclaimed, joyously displaying his finds. (Three Star Trek novels and an illustrated book about insane asylums.)

    So yes, there is hope for your boy, and I think you’ve hit on the perfect formula – sort of reverse psychology in terms of reading, I guess.

    Lovely post🙂

  2. Oh, I love this post about the joys of reading aloud, which I share. I’m onto my second run of Harry Potter with my second child and I am easily persuaded to read on. I’m also game for an accent, though a couple of nights ago I was wondering whether Hagrid really should sound Welsh. Thanks for the tips in this post which my nine year old and my seven year old are going to enjoy.

  3. I so enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of my own trials and errors with my kids. Figuring out what they’d like, reading to them and listening to them read (or not as the case may be), being surprised at their choices, learning (over and over) to let them make their choices rather than push mine. Oh yes, what a journey. Maybe you can find fishing explained–the sequel.

  4. Litlove, I recall my sister and mother reading to me, but I never liked hearing _The Littlest Angel_, a book my mother often picked up, as it was quite depressing. Most of the books that my elder siblings had read to them were ruined in a flood that came into the basement.

    So I was read to from — and eventually memorized, then read myself — How and Why ‘books’ (more like magazines, on animals, guns, war, science) and, later, atlases. I never had any experience with the Oz books, or Milne, Grimm or most fairy tales, any of the many books of childhood most might have read. I preferred The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift (he more than the Hardy boys), and then, quite naturally, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I never really liked the Tarzan books, but the first three books of the John Carter of Mars series were great. However, we had few books, there were never family trips to the library, and the schools I went to didn’t offer much that I liked, until I read Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1970s, reprints of pulp heroes like The Avenger, Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider, and G-8 entered the house, which I also devoured before, in my mid-teens, getting into science fantasy and science fiction. Most of all there were Marvel comics. We had a lot of them, and still do. I read them eagerly, over and over, and bought new ones every chance I could get.

    Maybe _Sea Fishing…_ tells something concrete that works for your son like the How and Why and atlases worked for me. There was a story in them – they were narratives of progressive discovery, usually, or just narratives – but there was also a lot of useful and fun information. That seemed to answer some need in me, or opened up some part of me that felt hungry for a world that I likely would not experience except through words.

  5. I loved reading this post! It took me back to the years where I read regularly to my sons. And I, too, am struggling to interest my 13-year-old son in books–any books! He said that close reading at school ruined reading for him last year, but I suspect the teacher had something to do with that. However, this year in the 8th grade they’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and he grudgingly admitted to me that he likes it and wonders what is going to happen next…thank goodness, there’s a glimmer of hope…

  6. Oh, what a great picture I have of the two of you reading when your son was younger! Sea Fishing Properly Explained! That’s just too funny. Good to know that all you need to do is find the books you won’t read and you can know that your son will love them🙂

  7. I have always loved reading to children (and I can remember some wonderful adults throughout my childhood who read to me). One of the pluses, I’ve discovered, of being a minister’s wife is that I know that when the kids with whom I love to read begin to get to be too old to want to come over and choose books anymore (even though all the children’s books are tantalizingly stored up in the attic of the manse, which is entered through a “secret door” that looks like a closet, a place that even the teenagers of the church think is cool), there will always be more coming along, who will be the right age for enjoying reading together, and I’ll get to start over again.

  8. Wonderful!Oh, the memories!We read through most of the Wizard of Oz books, everything on dinosaurs the library owned, D’aulaires Greek Myths (so many times that I had to buy that one–at least twice; it kept falling apart), Sir Gawain. Black Beauty (abridged)* Isn’t it amazing how quickly they figure out that if they push for just one more story or chapter, Mom will cave and bedtime be extended!
    Sea Fishing Properly Explained. What a great title! And the Sedaris? Inspired!
    Well, done, Litlove. You have nurtured a reader of the best sort: one with his own taste!

  9. This reminds me of many happy hours of listening to my dad reading – lots of Roald Dahl and Arthur Ransome are the ones that stand out (and William). I also remember reading the Hardy Boys on my own. I can understand that your son would want to assert his individuality by not reading what his mom suggests he reads. Perhaps you should try discouraging from actively reading anything he’s not ready for! Thanks for the suggestions.

  10. It’s hard for a parent to have to learn this lesson, and it’s just as hard for a teacher, we so desperately want our children to love the books that we do and having to accept that every reader is an individual is just not easy. I used to have to fight the impulse to fill the class library with the books I wanted to read and make sure instead that I had a balance in there. Mind you, somethings work for most children and the Diamond brothers are definitely one of those things. I was once reading one of their stories to a group of eleven year olds and realized that I was about to open my mouth and come out with a really laden sexual innuendo. “It’s all right,” I thought. “They will never understand it,” Oh silly me!!!!!!!

  11. I came over here from Pages Turned. I laughed at the Sedaris-baiting and immediately thought of George Carlin’s book Braindroppings. I’d leave that around my house if I had a son like yours!

  12. Oh what a fun post! My mom used to work in a kindergarten classroom and when I was home from college on holidays I’d always love to go and help out, which meant reading stories to the kids. I loved being read to as a child but being one of those self-sufficient sorts as soon as I could read on my own I didn’t want anyone else to read to me. I took over reading to my younger sister and when she got old enough we’d argue over who got to read to whom. Before I started back to school my husband and I would often read to each other. We still do but it is mostly short stories and poems these days rather than novels. I don’t think you have to worry about your son reading. Clearly he enjoyed being read to. He’ll figure it out. Maybe Sea Fishing Properly Explained will lead to all sorts of good things!

  13. When my brother was around that age he loved the book “A Boy’s Life” by Robert McCammon – not to be confused with the Wolfe (I think?) book of the same name. I know he wasn’t much of a reader then but there were definitely certain books he loved, and he’s absolutely a reader, now. Oh! Another book he really liked then was the Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub…

  14. My eldest son is barely a reader – he reads very occasionally, and is slow – so I guess I should be glad he at least owns some books, though most, like you, I have picked for him in the hopes he would love books as I do! He doesn’t, and I’ve come to accept it. I’m just so thrilled when i see him with a book in his hands, though!! all three of my children got library cards as soon as they were born, and while I’m great at picking out books for them to bring home, I’ve realized I have to start reading them with them – they want me to read to them all the books, and I want them to pick one out on their own! My daughter is 6 and we are reading some fairy tales at night – she really loves them too.

    thanks for the lovely funny post, Litlove!

  15. Becca – your son’s chosen reads made me laugh out loud – there IS hope for my son! And you’ve hit the nail on the head – reverse psychology in reading is definitely the way forward. It’s nice to think your boy also liked being read to for many years.🙂

    Lilian – lol! I will keep my eyes peeled for the sequel! I really miss wandering around the bookstore picking out titles that I think will suit. I would hire myself out as a bedtime story reader if I could!

    JB – It was lovely to read about your experiences and your own journey through reading. I am definitely thinking along the lines of graphic novels for my son. Isn’t there one Watchmen or Watchtower or something? I am wondering about trying that for his birthday. I don’t blame you at all for not liking something depressing. Exciting, yes, thrilling yes, occasionally scary or emotionally tense, yes, but not depressing for children. They’ve got all of adult life ahead for that. My son is quite unpredictable; he has always refused non-fiction point blank as not being his sort of thing, but maybe he has recently acquired a taste? In adolescence, anything is possible!😉

    Gentle Reader – Oh I have my fingers crossed that To Kill a Mockingbird makes it over the quality hurdle. Surprisingly my son seemed to enjoy Of Mice and Men in English last year – but that could have been aided by the fact I’ve never read a single Steinbeck novel, so he was safely on mother-free ground! Empathy to you, my friend, we mothers need to stick together and keep on coming up with cunning plans!

    Dorothy – it’s a small market, books I wouldn’t countenance reading, but there ARE some there!😉 I clearly have to just get them into the house now, under cover of darkness! lol!

    Emily – having an ever-renewing source of right-aged children is a wonderful resource indeed! If you are overworked, please feel free to send some my way! I do wonder whether I could get a part time job reading to children. Alas, I don’t think people round here consider it a discrete activity worth outsourcing.🙂

  16. ds – you are such a sweetie. We did the Greek myths too (although they were always on audio tapes for some reason), and wasn’t the Wizard of Oz good? My husband used to come in shaking his head at half nine saying ‘you are such a pushover’. And it was true. But it was fun.😉

    Pete – this is definitely the way to go – anything I discourage he stands far more chance of doing!🙂 Yes, the Just William stories are huge favourites over here, but you know we never did Arthur Ransome, though we should have done. I wonder if there is always one parent who is designated reader. My dad did read to me a bit, but almost always Paddington. He liked that as much as we did.

    Ann – they are remarkably astute, right? I would dearly love my son to want to read – and anything at all, really, anything. But I figure I must just sit tight and keep everything crossed. Pushing him and cajoling him are only going to make him annoyed. But you’re right it’s not easy! I would certainly have filled the library with my favourites so you did a good job of restraint!

    Jeanne – with a name like Braindroppings I can see I just HAVE to check out that book! Thank you for the wonderful suggestion and thank you also for dropping by.

    Stefanie – I was just the same as you as a child. I could go so much faster in my own head, reading out loud seemed counter-intuitive. I laughed to think of you and your sister arguing over who should read to whom! Funny! And I did used to read out loud with my husband, but alas, the days when we had the time for it seem far away now. You do well to get those poems in.🙂 And thank you – stepping away from the child seems like a good idea at the moment, although naturally I long to meddle.😉

    Courtney – those sound like great suggestions to me. I certainly think that when he gets a bit older, Stephen King might be a very good way forward. I’m heartily encouraged to think of your brother going off books AND returning to them. That’s cause for optimism, so thank you for that!🙂

    Susan – how lovely to have children of fairy tale age! Oh how nice; only having a son I never got to do girly books (although I don’t mind really – I can read them to myself if I want after all!). How lovely that you read with your children, though. It is such a delightful part of motherhood, and yet it is time consuming and often occurs when one would really just like to go to bed too! And good luck with keeping your boy reading. It is tricky, but I do warmly recommend Anthony Horowitz and Michael Carroll – and Adele Geras is very good too. Not quite sure how old your boy is, but AH and MC in the 9-12 category, I’d say.

  17. Framed sounds great! I’m off to look it up, but first wanted to say that giving them a little money and setting them lose in a second hand bookstore might just be the way to encourage reluctant readers to become bookstore regulars — and although I have to bite my tongue at the bloglily boys’ versions of fishing properly, I do love it when they make their own choices, weird though they often are.

  18. What a choice – you could never have predicted that! Well, I hope sea fishing is all properly explained now. I must say I don’t even have *mis*conceptions about sea fishing.

  19. Oh, this brought back fond memories of my parents reading to me as a child. My favourites were ‘The house that sailed away’ by Pat Hutchins, ‘Danny the champion of the world’ by Roald Dahl, and ‘The half men of O’ trilogy by Maurice Gee. My brother loved them too, particularly ‘Danny the champion of the world’, though he didn’t like to read by himself.

  20. At least your son knows where to look to find answers to some of life’s smaller questions. And you never know he may even expand on that. My niece tends to read aloud when she reads (which is not as often as I would like, but then I’m only her aunt), so I get to hear bits and pieces of whatever story she currently is reading. Her parents are not readers and I always wonder if it is a matter of doing by example, but you read lots and your son, doesn’t (and my niece sees me read lots), so I guess it isn’t just that. Lovely post by the way–it’s so nice to hear about parents who regularly read to their children–even when they are old enough to read for themselves!

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