When Book Tastes Collide: A Cross-Generational Parable
Now that she’s progressed past Diego Saves the Tree Frogs, my daughter loves to read (when she’s not doing cartwheels across the bedroom floor or peopling imaginary worlds with little plastic people). But she doesn’t always love to read what I love to read. Or what I loved to read at her age.
Case in point: the first chapter book that I remember reading was A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My older cousin gave me a beautiful copy, with illustrations by Tasha Tudor, for my seventh birthday. I vividly remember sitting on the back porch the morning after my birthday party, and reading right through the book until I was done. It’s remained one of my favorite books ever since; in fact, I still have the copy my cousin gave me almost thirty-five years ago.
Now, I don’t expect that my 7-year-old daughter, who has just started tackling short chapter books, is going to crack open A Little Princess and read it by herself. (And lest I seem to be setting myself up in any kind of superior way, I’ll just point out that I cannot now nor ever could do cartwheels at all, never mind toss them off serially the way she does. More crucially, she navigates what the new and revelatory anthology Can I Sit With You? refers to as “the stormy social seas of the schoolyard” with a facility that leaves me shaking my nerdly head in wonderment and retrospective envy. So my kid has it all over me in areas that are probably more important overall than the fluke of my having been a freakishly early reader.)
But my girl has the heart of a storyteller; she has a sophisticated understanding of narrative and loves a good tale. Not only that, but she loves princesses. So I was sure that she’d enjoy hearing the book—which is, after all, a metaphorical Cinderella retelling with a princess-like heroine who is also a master storyteller--read aloud. So much so that I first tried her on it when she was four years old. We got about a third of the way through before I gave it up, just about at the point where brave little Sara Crewe’s fortunes are about to turn for the worse. I could see my kid beginning to lose it, and I put the book away for later.
But now it is later. And she still doesn’t like it, not that
I asked her why. Was it because it was too sad when Sara is
left a poor orphan and Miss Minchin is so mean to her? No, she insisted. It was
the pictures. The pictures weren’t so good. Oh, they were okay at the
beginning, but the illustrator didn’t draw some things so well. And now that
we’re in the middle of the book, well, she just doesn’t like the pictures.
That explanation seemed a little shaky to me; I was sure there was more to the story. Or maybe she just needed to hear a little more. So the other day, in a last-ditch effort to get her hooked, I offered her a deal: I would read to the end of the latest Little Princess chapter, and then I’d read her a bonus story which could be anything she wanted.
Well, anything that wasn’t too long.
Okay, she said triumphantly. And she requested a picture book which I will not name here but which she knows very well I’m not crazy about.
Well, I’d promised. And, like Horton the Elephant, I meant what I said and I said what I meant. So, even though it set my teeth on edge, I read her that book. All one hundred percent. And this time around, I tried to see it through her eyes. What appealed to her about this book? Was it the illustrations? The characters? The narrator’s voice? The fairytale-like structure?
When I finished reading, I asked her. “It’s about friends,”
she said simply. “I like that it’s about friends.”
I could see that. She likes friends, and likes books about friends. I suppose I could’ve argued that A Little Princess is about friends, too, but if I have learned one thing in my years as a librarian it’s that there’s no point in trying to argue someone of any age into liking a book they don’t like.
Another thing I’ve learned is that sometimes people just
can’t explain why they like—or don’t like—a book; often a particular book will
speak to someone in a way that, ironically, transcends words It’s highly personal, like smell or taste or for that matter like falling in love. As an
adult, and a professional book person, I can limn the ways in which Frances
Hodgson Burnett’s tale of an orphan child at a London boarding school was was the perfect story to reach right into my lonely, bookish, seven-year-old heart, but at the time I just knew that I loved it.
But I might be ready to take it out of the bedtime story pile, at least for now. This time of New Year's resolutions is a good time for me to resolve to remember that I wouldn’t want my daughter to love all the same books that I do, any more than I want her to be the exact same person that I am. I’m grateful that she has books that she loves in that ineffable, inexplicable way, and I want her to feel free to choose them for herself.
Though, I have to admit, I’m grateful that she’s old enough now to read some of them on her own. Especially in those cases where our literary tastes diverge.
December 26, 2007