First of all, a curmudgeonly gripe.
In my view, people generally, though not always, read terribly to children. It sounds weird, the way they do it. It did to me when I was a child. Though it’s possible I was a weird child. Maybe more than possible.
My mother was a nice lady. Though she worked every day – she was a widowed single mother – my mother was still able to muster the energy and the interest to read to me before bedtime. (That would be my bedtime. If she read to me before her bedtime, I’d already be asleep. And what good would that do? Reading to a sleeping child!)
I no longer recall what she read to me, though the Uncle Wiggly series floats vaguely to mind. There were also other anthropomorphic bunny tales, it seems to me, none of which left their mark on my memory (except for one, which I shall deliver via Youtube tomorrow.) Apparently, the writers of the day (“the day” being the 1950’s) seemed to think rabbits were the most appealing conduits of juvenile entertainment and moral instruction. To be honest, I prefer learning my lessons from elephants.
It seems wrong to disparage a woman who, though I am sure dead tired, took the time to read stories to her kid. And I do not, of course, disparage the intention. Thanks Mom, I appreciate it. Though I doubt if I told her that when she was alive. The reason I didn’t is not exactly, or at least not entirely, because I was thoughtless. I knew that, me being me, after thanking her for her loving administration of my bedtime requirements, I would spoil things by shooting past the compliment and start critiquing how she did it.
Which was like this.
And by the way, as I mentioned above, this was not a unique bedtime reading deficiency of my mother’s. I have witnessed other mothers – and yes, fathers as well – making a similar mistake. The mistake being this.
Rather than using a regular speaking voice, when my mother read me stories, she would egregiously overdramatize and overemphasize almost every word.
“And GUESS what happened NEXT!”
Okay, it’s possible it’s the writing, though as a writer myself, I am more comfortable blaming the actors. As far as I could tell – and it is remarkable that at age six I could tell anything at all – my mother was definitely “pushing it”, believing that if if she didn’t, I would not understand what was going on. What was so difficult? It was a story for six year-olds.
My mother’s hyper-acting approach was the equivalent of printing words for young children in really big letters, as if reading comprehension had something to do with your eyesight.
My mother’s “over-the-top”-ness derailed the entire experience for me. I mean, I was grateful. I enjoyed the undivided attention, the warmth of her physical presence. But she was reading terribly. And I had to act like she wasn’t.
Fortunately, it was easy to misread my yawns of boredom as signals that I was ready to go to sleep. So she was never aware she had a son who was a precocious stickler about performance. I was grateful for her effort. Though – here we go again – if she’d have only “cooled it” and let the material speak for itself – man, I really hold on, don’t I?
Let it go, Earlo.
Okay, Mom. You were great. Period.
Now to balance the books, moving in a positive direction, I want to tell you about a book that did stay with me. It was that memorable. Well, okay. It wasn’t the book exactly.
It was the cover.
My Bedtime Book was a big, thick volume, containing hundreds of stories, each of them two or three pages long, perfect for the bedtime “cool down”, preparatory to slumberland (and hopefully alleviating any “If I should die before I wake” concerns.)
On the cover of my Bedtime Book, a Bunny (what else?) Father (he is wearing a plaid vest and smoking a pipe) is seated in a rocking chair, reading a bedtime story to his bunny offspring nestled comfortably in his lap.
The book the Bunny Father is reading is the same book my mother is reading to me. Consequently, the cover of the book the Bunny Father, sitting in a rocking chair, his bunny offspring nestled comfortably in his lap shows a Bunny Father, sitting in a rocking chair, his bunny offspring nestled comfortably in his lap.
And what is the picture on the cover of the book that Bunny Father is reading?
A Bunny Father, sitting in a rocking chair…
And so on, and so on, and so on.
The same picture is repeated. Deeper and deeper and infinitely deeper in the cover of my Bedtime Book. Going all the way to China. (I don’t know if that’s racist. But that’s how we talked about really deep holes – they went all the way to China. Which this book cover seemed to do as well, though in this case, it was not down, it was in.
I was utterly mesmerized.
As my mother emoted hyperbolically, my eyes remained lasered to that cover. It seemed to have a hypnotic pinwheel effect. (Which could well have been the point. When you’re trying to get a kid to sleep, you use all the ammunition you’ve got.)
I just stared and stared, totally incredulous at what I was looking at. How did they do that? How far in does it go? How minutely tiny are the furthest away bunnies? And how do you paint bunnies that small?
Somebody thought of the idea for that cover. And even back then, I thought that somebody was a genius.
The stories were forgettable.
But that cover will haunt me for the rest of my life.