Thumbing through an old journal, my eyes landed on a paragraph. In black pen, I’d scrawled, “My mind is spinning. She told me this morning that she doesn’t like to read for fun. Fiction, novels, mysteries—no, she’d rather be writing. A sobering confession. I tried not to lecture her.” She, our barely 13-year-old daughter, the other female in the family. I felt the same raw emotion as when I first wrote the entry, though four years had passed.
Even so, I understand her words differently now. I have come to refer to them as The Great Contradiction.
In 1998 I started my journey as a mother. Since I had been the quintessential bookworm in my 1970s youth, my determination to pass on a love for reading was as strong as Nancy Drew’s dogged perseverance in solving mysteries. School was an hour-long bus ride away and my earliest character obsessions were amateur detective Nancy and her buddies Bess and George. I read on the long ride to school and back, which resulted in my devouring one mystery per week as a third grader. As a parent, I wanted my daughter to feel the same enjoyment at being utterly enveloped by a story.
I’ve also always loved the ease with which good stories communicate truth and beauty, and I longed for my daughter to share that love. I pictured us walking in tandem in our mutual appreciation for reading, unpacking plots and characters for each other as we bonded in conversation. She would live vicariously through characters who would broaden her world, and they would teach her important life lessons better than I ever could. Like opening up a secret tunnel, reading would be my path into her life just as it would be her path to healthy adulthood.
Reality rarely squares with theory, let alone with dreams of what comes next. Somehow, for all my best efforts, I wasn’t raising a daughter who loved to read. Nevertheless, I was deeply grateful she felt safe enough to speak her mind.
Secure, she could tell me she didn’t like to read, crushing my hopes. Secure, she could hurl her dart at me, and though it found its mark, I knew that her declaration didn’t completely square with reality.
Now 17, my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read is quickly emerging as an independent, thoughtful young woman. We have the close relationship I once imagined, knitted over years of conversation on walks and at coffee shops. Our connection is colorfully woven around books and favorite characters, and also the material of our own writing.
Contrary to her claim that she didn’t like to read, from a young age, she did love stories as I did, and when she learned to write, she started writing stories of her own. At age eight, my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read completed her first novel, The Magic Flip-Flops. It fills 86 pages of a notebook and on the inside cover she scribbled in pencil, “For Mom.”
I’ve stepped back to gain perspective on my 17-year-old, and my delight now equals my previous despair and disappointment. I can now see that a love of literature I couldn’t have forced was always there; I just needed to step away for it to develop. Her talent was exponentially more thrilling to watch because it was all hers.
When I reread the short journal entry, I realized for the first time the part I’d played in her outburst years ago. As she was growing up, I had relentlessly pushed beloved books from my own childhood on her, using the word “should.” In my enthusiasm I’d say, “You should read Harriet the Spy!” or “Oh, you should read Cricket in Times Square. You’ll love it!” She didn’t ask, but I brought The Cricket in Times Square home from the library.
I urged her to give the book a chance but it sat there unopened until its due date. She did give the copy of Harriet the Spy I bought from a second-hand bookstore a quick read.
“Meh,” she shrugged.
In my youth, I had read the book and afterwards carried a little spy notebook in my pocket. I observed, taking notes about what was going on around me. I’d wanted to be Harriet.
“It just wasn’t as good as you made it out to be,” my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read said.
Unwittingly, I only built resistance with my encouragement, undermining the very habit I longed to promote. She felt pressure to love the books I’d loved at her age. Unsurprisingly, she never fell in love with my childhood favorites. Harriet the Spy never caught her as it did me.
Instead, I realized she was finding her own favorites along the way and didn’t need my recommendations. And in a beautiful way, the tables turned and she was encouraging me to read them.
Before she declared herself my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read, she binged on Sharon Creech. Ruby Holler gave her the idea of what she wanted her future writer’s life to look like. She’d be a writer who lived in a cottage deep in a wood, similar to Tiller and Sairy. She’d rather have a horse, however, to provide the necessary transportation to get groceries, and she’d rather not have electricity; candles and woodburning stoves were more natural and provided a superior writing environment. The romance of that picture has faded but her worn copy of the book is on her “favorites” shelf. She recommended The Wanderer and I eagerly read it, too. Then there was Walk Two Moons. At that point I was such a Creech fan that I ordered her then-new-release, The Unfinished Angel, with no encouragement from my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read—and then sent another copy to a friend.
As a writer today, she realizes that she’s obsessed with her characters’ longings, perhaps in part because of Creech’s loveable Tiller and Sairy. In old age, the couple has ceased to see the charm in their rich but simple life together in the holler. Individually, they have mapped out “bucket list” trips to fulfill the need for adventure that they both feel. These separate trips reflect what each thinks will make them whole, filling in a piece of life they’ve missed out on. When they decide to open up their home to some foster kids, they have no idea that the reckless, love-starved teens will be instrumental in reminding them how good their life is. This book was her first favorite, her game changer, a significant point in her timeline as the Nancy Drew books were in mine.
After Creech, my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read succeeded in turning me on to Kate DiCamillo with The Tale of Despereaux and the achingly gorgeous The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Edward, a stuffed rabbit, is tossed and turned by a life of happenstance; lost, then found, he longs to belong permanently. So does Delphine Fondeur, the protagonist in one of my daughter’s stories. The French girl whose family immigrates to London for work feels heavily the weight of being unwanted, misunderstood, a misfit. She longs for friends to whom she can belong, permanently.
I’ve often told my daughter to write from her own experience and in Delphine’s story, she does. As a tween expat in London, my daughter felt like a true outsider. She struggled to fit in with a weekly girls’ church group. She was the youngest, an American, and was homeschooled. She didn’t like makeup, shopping or boys, and shallow giggly conversation bored her. At the time, she didn’t even know who Justin Bieber was—and the girls didn’t let her forget it. Like her character Delphine, she felt desperately out of place and oddly more at ease with adults; our friends were hers. Teary-eyed, she wondered if she would ever experience genuine camaraderie with her peers.
It was only after an assignment in an advanced creative writing class her junior year that I was able to see how both her reading and writing were satisfying a longing.
Charged with writing an artist statement, she said, “I want readers to see that everyone longs for something, and that we are all constantly searching for it. Some of us don’t even know what it is, but we need something to make us feel whole. My characters go on this search to find the thing they believe will make them happy.”
When I’m honest with myself, I’m now able to acknowledge my own similarities to my daughter’s characters. While my daughter was internalizing literature to sort out questions in her own life, my own happiness depended on this very thing, that she should love stories.
She doesn’t like to read, she insisted. Yet she admired the brave Susan Pevensie of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, adept with bow and arrow. Later it was the skilled hunter Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a trilogy that also stands on her “favorites” shelf. These books showed her strength and power in young female protagonists—but that groundwork was laid much earlier by The Daring Book for Girls, a powder-blue hardback her Grandpa had bought her one year for Christmas that has its own place on her shelf.
I recall her wondering aloud if she could possibly be as wonderfully brave as Susan. She would practice fitting an imaginary arrow into her bow and shooting at a target way off down our long entry hall. In her own life, my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read will need bravery and courage as she charts a path far away from home. The sheer number of unknowns threatens to overrun my maternal heart if I’m not careful. However, the characters she chooses to put on pedestals from the stories she loves console me, emboldening my deeply held belief that she will be okay.
She doesn’t like to read. Yet she had fallen in love with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. It was a school assignment, but she was awed and read it multiple times. Her copy is dog-eared—more so after she generously lent it to her best friend. Kingsolver’s style of writing is exactly how she wishes she could write, she says. She wants to be able to connect the reader to her characters, the way she feels emotionally attached to Kingsolver’s Taylor Greer. Taylor longs to adopt Turtle, the discarded baby she serendipitously finds. It’s an ambition that promises to change her life forever. My daughter’s goal for her own characters, she writes, is that “they illustrate the complexity of human personalities and the choices we make to create a better life for ourselves.”
She’s thrilled by the complexity of real people doing real life. It’s more honest than the way teen culture looks, she tells me. By this time, I’m accustomed to her honesty about people around her. Would she have this level of clarity without books and literature? I also wonder if we would share this unique transparency in our mother-daughter relationship without stories and writing. Just as she’s learned about herself and who she wants to be from literature, we’ve developed our own literary conversation, not shared with anyone else. It’s like our secret language.
She doesn’t like to read, but she loves Jane Eyre. Jane is her definition of a good woman. My daughter longs to have Jane’s constancy. She hasn’t read Anna Karenina but I’ve read it many times and I’ve told her Anna’s story. We watched the movie together. We compared the choices of Jane and Anna, talking about what goodness and truth, deception and falsehood look like in the life of these women. We talked about the power of temptation and the power of choices; she desires to emulate Jane, not Anna. She perceives that narratives hold great power because of how these two stories have influenced her thinking about her own womanhood.
“Jane is serious and a bit hard to understand. Definitely, she would be hard to get to know because she’s so locked up, understandably, because she was abused as a child. But her seriousness about holding tight to her self-respect is really amazing. It seems a bit proud in some ways, but she’s got what I want for myself.”
We’ve just finished watching the movie again and she’s on a roll, monologuing, praising Jane while also ranting against teenagers who disrespect themselves to win the short-term respect of the crowd. With a throbbing heart, I listen in silence. I’m overflowing with gratefulness, struck by how indebted I am to these books that encourage my daughter more effectively than I can.
My daughter knows that Anna Karenina’s passionate longing leads to pain, ruin and death, certainly not the future she envisioned. In the book my daughter has just started writing, she invites the reader into the life of Theo. “Theo Penthollow,” writes my daughter, “cheats on his wife because he thinks it will bring him happiness and love, and ends up searching for good things in the wrong way.”
I can see that Theo is based on some of the men in our downtown high-rise building. Their lifestyle is one of boozing it up on the weekends around the swimming pool and flirting with the girls in the building in hopes of a hook up. She takes it one step further by making her protagonist a little older and married. Theo’s mistress is in the building and it’s inevitable that she and the wife will meet; things will come to a head just as they did for Anna, her lover Vronsky and her husband.
As a writer who loves reading, there is much for me to enjoy about my writer daughter-who-doesn’t–like-to-read. Publishing doesn’t motivate her, but she writes prolifically anyway. We exchange stories and give feedback. We talk about plot ideas and how to build believable characters. Before I submit anything, I ask her to read through my work and tell me if it’s ready.
From the ragged copy and rough text of The Magic Flip-Flops told in her eight-year-old voice to the dozens of notebooks and binders of subsequent stories lining the lower portion of her bookshelf, I see now that there has been something magical going on for a long time. That magic has been quiet, a slow and steady growth despite my clumsy commands to read this or that.
Like Eugene wishing for flip-flops and getting magic flip-flops, my longing for my daughter-who-doesn’t-like-to-read has already been more than met. In hoping only that she would love to read books, I was aiming too low.
When I recently asked if she could recall her motive in uttering The Great Contradiction, she said, “Reading can be mentally exhausting. I was just trying to be honest, and you were sensitive. It wasn’t a lie I made up just to make you mad.” More of her trademark honesty.
With an equally honest heart I can now look back and fully appreciate The Great Contradiction. That moment in time changed me, bringing into sharp focus the need to let my daughter be herself, contradictions and all. Today, she’s very comfortable with who she is. Seeing that in her writing and hearing it in our literary conversations, I’m totally comfortable too.