“There were the two watchmen, sure enough: red cap on his back, as stiff as a handspike, with his arms stretched out like those of a crucifix, and his teeth showing through his open lips; Israel Hands propped–”
”Like this?” Paris leaps off the sofa and flings himself onto the floor, arms out rigidly, making a face like a dead rat. We all laugh. He jumps up again and cannonballs back into his seat on he sofa. “Oof,” I say involuntarily, and resume reading aloud from Chapter XXV of Treasure Island.
“–Israel Hands propped against the bulwarks, his chin on his chest, his hands lying open before him on the deck, his face as white, under its tan, as a tallow candle–”
“Go on, Mummy! I love this story!”
“For a while the ship kept bucking and sidling like a vicious horse, the sails filling, now on one tack, now on another, and the boom swinging to and fro until the mast groaned aloud with the strain–”
“Psssshhhwww!” Paris blasts off again, and reels around the sitting room making a noise like a schooner in bad weather, his arms alternately billowing like sails and whacking back and forth like a boom.
“Like this, right? Gnnnarrrr….” he groans, mast-like.
We’re all laughing again, but man this reading aloud can be a slow business, and you may lay to it, as Long John Silver would say.
It’s one thing to interrupt a nursery staple such as Goodnight Moon every few words. The whole book is only 30 pages, and half the joy of reading it comes from little children’s pleasure in spotting the tiny changes in the bunny’s nursery as he goes to sleep. The mouse moves around the room, the clock’s hands tick towards 8 o’clock, the stars come out.
But when you’ve already put in years rereading Goodnight Moon, Dr. Seuss, and Mother Goose, have swept through Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and most of Kipling, and finally have children old enough to appreciate Robert Louis Stevenson, well, frankly, you want to hear the story as much as they do. At last you are on your own narrative turf, as it were, and you want to stride about comfortably. So you read aloud, your sitting room slowly blurring into the blood-soaked deck of the Hispaniola , where you, Jim Hawkins, are about to outwit the treacherous coxswain Israel Hands….
“…He wanted me to leave the deck–so much was plain; but with what purpose I could in no way imagine. His eyes never met mine; they kept wandering to and fro, up and down–”
When some small excited person catapults himself into the air and– pfffft–the thrilling scene dissolves and everyone is back in the sitting room again.
“Like this?” Paris, asks, smirking and winking and darting his eyes about.
“Aw, Paris, let Mummy read,” my husband and Molly protest, as one.
“Okay, okay,” he complains, still making crafty piratical faces. We continue. For a paragraph. Until someone interrupts.
Upstairs the little girls are dreaming of well-dressed elephants after their hour-long reading-aloud session, a Talmudic scrutiny of The Story of Babar. If you have not read it recently, you may have forgotten that the Francophone pachyderm is riding on his mother’s back when a hunter shoots her. Babar runs away in terror to a Mediterranean city, where he is drawn up short by the sight of two gentlemen: “Really, they are very well dressed,” Babar says to himself, “I would like to have some fine clothes, too! I wonder how I can get them?”
This bizarre Gallic reasoning–Your mother died today, or was it yesterday? You need new clothes!–comports perfectly with Violet’s world view. No matter what we read, however terrifying Hansel and Gretel’s predicament, however ferocious the Beast when he arrests Beauty’s father, what Violet wants most is for everyone to look good. Older men are “kings,” younger men are “princes,” and all females, unless obviously witches, are “princesses.” She may be right about this. Certainly she exudes more respect for me when I am wearing a dress.
Luckily, a very rich Old Lady who has always been fond of little elephants understands right away that he is longing for a fine suit. As she likes to make people happy, she gives him her purse. Babar says to her politely: “Thank you, Madam.”
“What did you say, Mummy?” Phoebe asks.
“Er–never mind. Let’s keep reading.”
“Did you just say you’d like to meet a rich Old Lady like that?” Violet pursues.
Just as I am turning the page, Violet’s hand emerges from beneath her lamb fleece and points to the Old Lady in the book, who is holding out a bulging purse to the greedy Babar.
“I’m her,” Violet says, “She’s a princess.”
As Babar heads for the nearest department store, I glance at my watch. There is nothing so worth doing as messing about with books in the nursery, as Kenneth Grahame might put it, but it’s almost seven and I’ve got Treasure Island still to go. I cannot imagine how it would be to have, say, twelve children. How could you possibly introduce them all to the great works of juvenile fiction? If you started reading The Big Red Barn to the toddlers right after dinner, you’d barely be finishing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at midnight. No wonder so many Americans restrict the size of their families.
He goes out for an automobile ride every day,” I continue, as the girls pore over a particularly busy illustration of Babar motoring through the French countryside. “The Old Lady has given him the car. She gives him whatever he wants.” I smother another imprecation.
“That’s me. With my goat,” says Phoebe, removing two fingers from her mouth just long enough to point at a little girl in the drawing, then slotting them back in again.
“No, that’s me.”
“No, that’s you,” Phoebe agrees.
“I know,” Violet says irritably, “She’s a princess.”
“Let’s keep reading,” I say for the 20th time. It is one of those phrases that emerges from one’s mouth only after children arrive, along with, “Eat your beans,” and “Put on a sweater, I’m cold.” Eavesdrop at the zoo and you will hear the ageless variant: “C’mon, kids, let’s go see the monkeys/camels/lions.” The fact is, most adults can’t look at live elephants as long as children can, let alone crude drawings of haughty, French-looking elephants in hot air balloons.
We’re almost at the end, when an interruption comes in and jumps on the bed.
“Sorry girlies,” Paris says, “Mummy, look what I’ve just done!”
He holds up a crude drawing of his own: a stick-figure man hanging from a kind of egg. Underneath the man is what looks like a flower. There’s a dark line scrawled diagonally across the whole scene.
“Wow, what is this?”
“It’s a ‘No Parachuting in a Thunderstorm’ sign,” Paris says earnestly, “Because, you know, KABOOM-aiieee!”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit. Her NRO column, “The Fever Swamp” appears weekly.