The First Tragedy of Being a Reader

Lately Shai has been obsessively requesting Fortunately the Milk, by Neil Gaiman. I secretly love it, because I’ve lived in books my whole life and always hoped my children would too.

Shai is 4 and cannot read a book like Gaiman’s all on his own yet, so to save my sanity (sorry Neil, I enjoy FTM, but after reading it 12 times, I needed a break.) I bought the audio book and Shai started asking for it at bedtime instead of the music he normally listens to. Every time I’d walk by his room, I’d hear giggles and a little voice repeating the words he knew by heart.

In the morning he would open the book and recite it in his best attempt at Gaiman’s British accent with a slight twist of Midwestern.

I tried to push other books. I reminded him of how much he was enjoying The House of Arden before he put it aside for a time traveling Father in his quest to get his children milk for their morning cereal.

“No.” Was always his response.

I went online and made a list of all the children’s books Neil Gaiman has written and ordered a few that I thought Shai would enjoy.

Today we opened the mailbox to find Odd and the Frost Giants. I hyped it up, reminding him who wrote it. Shai was excited. He ran to the book shelf, pulled all his Gaiman books and brought them to the sofa. “I love Neil Gaiman, he’s my favorite.”

It was enough to make my heart explode. I don’t think I would have been happier if he told me that he loved The Lord Of the Rings or that he wanted to spend all day reading through Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books. I got chills but felt a silent warning calling out to me from all the characters in books I’ve loved throughout the years, “Don’t push!” they reminded me, “Let him love us on his own” some called. “Let him hate us if he likes” others said. “Just don’t let him know how much it means to you that he builds a secret life with us.”

You pay a price when you read too much, characters stop being characters and start bossing you around.

“I don’t want to read the new book” Shai told me when I opened it up. “I want to read Fortunately the Milk.”

It hit me like an Orc that he was experiencing a side effect of being a reader, a common occurrence that I’ve felt hundreds of times, the moment you read the last word, close the back cover and the book is finished. It’s as if someone has flipped a switch and the magic has gone out of the air. You realize that it wasn’t real, that the book was just a book and all you will ever hear of the people you met inside and love is known, their journey is finished. They’re no longer people you’re wandering the dessert on horseback with, but characters that you read about once. For those that aren’t readers it sounds insane, and possibly a reason to be institutionalized, but for the readers, it’s near tragedy.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized it before. Shai didn’t want to read other books because he was experiencing his first pang of desire for a book to never end.

We talked about it, and I promised him that it would not be the last book he loved or the last book he missed, but that the unique magic of literature is that unlike people and places in a tangible world, the stories he absorbs and the characters he meets between pages will always be there. They’re as real as the snow falling or faeries having battles in the winter wind, if he loved them, and they changed him, they’re real.

I don’t know if he’ll remember Fortunately the Milk when he grows up, or what I told him, but I do know that I will never forget that conversation under quilts on the couch or the first book that touched his heart.

So good job Neil Gaiman, because of you another reader was born.

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Callie Armstrong © 2014

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Awwwww. I remember the feeling as a child just reading and re-reading the same stories over and over. Shai will remember this one. It’ll be part of him. You are such a fantastic mum to your kids. They are going to grow up so enriched. I wish I could get Matthew to read anything decent but he is dinosaur obsessed and has found some awfully written novels in the library which he makes me read over and over. (Though he has recognised an author can over use a word and that this is a bad thing! The closest I’ve got to a classic with him is Roald Dahl (though I love his stories both for adults and children so won’t knock that too much) Lovely post. Bought a wobble to my British stiff upper lip. 🙂

    1. calliedeanne says:

      Oh good, my goal in life is to one day make a Brit cry 😉

      I think the most surprising thing to me about being a mom of boys is how few great Dinosaur inspired books there are for kids. We’ve read a lot of the dorky ones too but there’s nothing all that great. Have you read the Dinotopia books to Matthew? The pictures are so cool, Shai likes them a lot. They’re a little advanced but it works if I let Shai play with playdough or legos while I read, or before bed…because what 4/5 year old doesn’t want to delay the inevitable bed time!

  2. You have mentioned those before so I MUST look them up and get a couple. His own reading is so advanced now for his age, but he does still like me to read to him. But yes, generally dinosaur based books are a bit rubbish. Maybe we should write them. Clearly a gap n the market and I know absolutely shed loads about dinosaurs! 😉

    1. calliedeanne says:

      We really should, although the boys would probably be graduating from high school by the time we really got around to it!

  3. Jason Zwiker says:

    Aww, that’s a sweet story. And it’s perfectly normal. Repetition is soothing. There are many, many poems I read with my mom as a child that I can still recite today.

  4. kwizoe says:

    I was lucky enough to listen to Neil Gaiman the other night, as he’s the distinguished author at the UofC for 2014. Such a wonderful imagination, and truly talented, it was a delight to get to know him, as I was not a reader of his work before. I now have a copy of the “Graveyard book”, and I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have a child that delights in Neil’s work.

  5. This is adorable. I remember when my daughter fell into a book and didn’t want to leave it again. It’s such an awesome moment, and watching that switch flip on that creates a lifelong reader is one of the rare instants of validation a parent gets to enjoy in the roller-coaster of uncertainty that is raising a child. Good for your kiddo! I hope he falls in love every time he cracks open a book…

  6. This was so sweet – and clearly your boys are going to be life-long readers because you’re teaching them appreciate all that books have to offer. I absolutely loved the way you described the magic of literature and how the stories and characters will always be there. I’ve always told my son how books can transport him to amazing places, and now I can’t help but grin when his nose is in a book and he says, “Mommy, this is just the BEST book”! As far as wanting a book to never end, I just can’t help but tell you this story: when my teenaged niece was at my house a few months ago, she started reading ‘Hamster in Space!’ and it was taking a looong time – I finally said,”Melissa, you’re still reading the book?” and she replied, “Well I’m reading it REALLY slowly because I don’t want it to be over!”. I was so touched, I almost cried! I thought as a fellow writer and reader you’d appreciate that. Anyway, this was another really touching and well-written post – you’re awesome!

  7. I love this post! I sooo know this feeling. Thanks for sharing:)

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