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.
Callie Armstrong © 2014