Lessons Learned from Shel Silverstein

I am a late convert to the school of Shel Silverstein.  While my peers cut their literary teeth on his silly and sentimental poems, I had never read them.  My mother hit all the other required lending from the library – Dr. Seuss, Sesame Street, Richard Scarry – but I had never cracked the spine of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Until my first grader came home singing its praises.  Her teacher had read it aloud to her class and she was hooked.  A week or so later when we signed her up for the summer reading program at our local library, she went straight to that book as the first she’d ever check out with her own library card.  Her nose stayed in that book like a bloodhound to a trail – except when she’d call me over to read a particularly silly poem or look at a contorted pen and ink drawing that she found equally funny.  And from there, she guffawed through Runny Babbit, onto A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up.

It blows my mind to be here at the exact moment when my child becomes an obsessive, voracious reader.  I know I’m one, but I can’t even say that I remember exactly when it happened (though it was most likely on my mother’s lap at bedtime).  Where the Sidewalk Ends is her gateway drug.

Harry Potter hit at the outset of my teaching career.  Then and many times since, I’ve heard people disparage its literary quality (which I don’t necessarily agree with), but applaud its ability to get kids hooked on reading.  I am not drawing parallels that bring Mr. Silverstein’s work into question, but having never been privy to the mania surrounding his work myself as a kid, I can’t say I understand it.  But, hey, it has lit that part of my child’s brain that makes her interested in an author, a genre, amassing a body of knowledge – it’s literary gold as far as I’m concerned.

And tonight, I mined for gold even further when I held up two books for she and her sister to choose from for bedtime reading, one of which was The Giving Tree, knowing full well which one they would choose (her sister is also becoming enamored with the idea of Shel Silverstein just by hearing big sis talk about it all the time).  The Giving Tree is actually the only Silverstein book I’m familiar with, having received it as a gift for the girls (no doubt by one of my contemporaries who has fond childhood memories of biting into it) when they were smaller.  I remember reading it in a hormone-induced haze and choking through my words at the end of it.  Man, it got me.

But the simplicity of it got me even more tonight.  And the message that it has for all readers – young and old alike.

I was reading it with a different eye, tuned into the words in light of the poetry my daughter has been reading.  Spread across multiple pages, the beginning is actually an extended stanza.  I could see the line breaks and hear the cadence across the creases.  But then the boy grows older.  And things get more complex.  There is an up-tick in language.  A problem.  Discussion.  Back and forth.  A one-sided decision.  And the tone of the story remains at this elevated level until the boy returns as an old man, weary of the world and its ways, and ready to embrace what he already knew as a young person.

So, tonight, as a thirty-three and seven-eighths year-old woman, I learned a lesson from reading Shel Silverstein; one that I couldn’t possibly have learned had I encountered him for the first time in first grade.  By keeping things simple – our language, our needs, our desires, our interactions with others – life is more enjoyable for everyone.  It is only when we want more, we expect more, we demand more, that things gets muddled and more difficult, especially when we look for those things in inappropriate places.  Being totally appreciative of what we have and honoring those who help us get it is a place to start.  And perhaps we wouldn’t be so very tired at the end of it all if we remembered these things.

Who would’ve thought that I would’ve learned such a profound lesson by reading a bedtime story to my children?  Certainly not I.  So a big shout out to Shel Silverstein tonight, wherever you are – for opening my daughter’s eyes to the wonders of reading and giving me new eyes to see.

Story Time

It’s a good thing I believe in the power of reading – because if I didn’t, there’s no way I’d take my kids to the library.  Time after time, it proves to be a taxing experience – one I’m not sure is balanced by the benefits of the books we obtain.

The kids, however, love it.  So much, in fact, that they burst through the doors like an invading army, one running this way, one the other.  Unfortunately, the front doors deposit us right into the “quiet” section of the library.  While I try to corral them towards the book drop, they dodge and weave, this last time with Julia lighting upon the stack of rolling bins “just like the ones at the grocery store, Mama” to tote books around in – even though I can’t get her to carry our tote bag.

After numerous shushes on the way to the reserves where Mommy’s book is waiting, it’s time to commandeer the children’s section.  They rush to the stairs with renewed vigor, Angela’s voice reverberating through all the levels as we ascend.

They do comment on a few books on display en route to the play area, Julia picking one on various modes of transportation throughout the ages.  Story time must have just ended because there are many little people and their parents hovering about.  Julia and Angela dive into the crowd, playing with the puppet theatre and puzzles; making friends more easily than I.  Julia sits on a low-slung kid couch near another mother and starts a conversation with the Tyrannosaurus she’s operating.  Angela giggles at the parrot another mother has squawking.  I smile and mill about.  These two must already know each other because a few minutes later, I can’t help but overhear one relay the story of her husband’s possible adultery to other.  One father with a preschooler and an infant looks up in surprise when he sees his baby smiling through a gap in a bookshelf, playing peek-a-boo with me – maybe he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself either.  A grandmother plops in a chair after depositing her toddler into the play area, looking worn out.  I want to tell her I feel her pain.

Today, as with nearly every visit here, I’m having flashbacks to when Julia was an infant.  So exhausted as a new mother, yet determined to keep my active two and a half year-old busy, I would strap Julia to the front of me and take Bella to story-time.  I think I was trying a passive-aggressive attempt at keeping some semblance of pre-baby # 2.  I figured if I couldn’t sleep when she slept and lie around all day in my pajamas, I may as well be out and about to distract myself from my misery.  I’m still not sure which was worse: a mom who could hustle around two of them, her harried mania bubbling just below the surface, or a mom drooling in delirium with a stir-crazy kid.  I was so desperate to latch on to something, I rushed the kids to story time without realizing there is an etiquette to such events.  I was lucky enough to attend the first meeting of a new session, at which there would be arts and crafts and for which advanced registration was required.  The most dour-looking librarian of the staff came over to me with her clipboard, pointing to my daughter, and asked, “And who might this be?”  After introductions, she said, “Ok, I’ll add her to the list for next time as she’s not signed up.”  I stammered some statement/question about pre-registration and she assured me it was fine; she had extra materials for the craft.  She had moved on to the next child, who was on her list, before I could thank her.  We went home with our contraband craft and never returned.

I guess I’m not much of a joiner.  One of the things I love about reading is getting lost in one’s own little world, a world that changes from chapter to chapter, book to book.  The solitary, quiet joy of it.  Although, I do love sharing and discussing the juicy details of a book I’ve just finished with someone else.  It has to be someone I know will enjoy it equally though.  Someone who loves a good story for the pure, unadulterated joy of it; the thrill of figuring out a mystery; the ache of a loss as if it were your own.  Not someone who will rebuff me because I wasn’t playing by a set of rules I didn’t even know existed.

I still take my kids to the library.  Though I’d much rather get my books and run, I let them say hello to the fish in the aquarium; put together puzzles that are missing a few pieces; pluck books from the shelf not by their merit, but because they’re at eye-level.  I let them scan the books at the self-check station even though their squeals as they push each other off the stool they’re sharing make me cringe – never mind the other patrons.  I take them to the library because they need to create their own experiences in the world of reading.  I can’t force them to operate under a set of rules made by someone else; they need to be afforded the same opportunities as those kids whose names are on the list.

Plus, it always makes for a really good story.

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