When I was a teenager, I loved to hang out with Jane Eyre on the weekends. She was “girl power” before girl power was a thing, and she had a confidence that my socially awkward teenage self longed for. No matter what happened to her, Jane was always unfailingly, unapologetically, herself. Charlotte Brontë’s beautiful words connected me to a girl decades and miles away and showed me that the world is big and complicated and full of adventure.
I look for beautiful words everywhere—in books, in music, in my own writing. Sometimes, a well-crafted sentence will pull me out of a story because I have to stop to admire it. When I was in college, I buried myself in words through several simultaneous literature and philosophy classes, which meant I always walked around with a stack of books. When I interviewed for a job at a local used bookstore, I thought it was a lock, but the bookstore manager didn’t want to hear about how I revisit Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights every fall because that’s the best time to run wild through the moors. He wanted someone to hawk best sellers, and at the time, that was a language I didn’t speak. I left the interview an English major who couldn’t get a job in a bookstore. That pretentious girl, who rolled her eyes at her mom’s Danielle Steele novels, would have scoffed at the mom I’ve become, engaged in a heated debate with my kids about whether the Captain Underpants movie was better than the book series. (It wasn’t.)
When my husband and I were expecting our first baby, I wanted to wrap my baby in beautiful words. I had no interest in books about talking cars, precocious children, or alphabet rhymes. I wanted the classics. So, I decorated the nursery in Pooh and had the A. A. Milne complete stories ready to go. When my son was born, we spent many tranquil hours reading together in the rocking chair, sometimes long after he was sleeping and should have been in the crib. It was perfect. I soon got bored, however. After all of the kids’ stories, late nights, unshowered early mornings, anxiety about feedings, and lack of sleep, I started to miss the girl who devoured books. I didn’t want her to slip away. I wanted to tackle something challenging. So, I switched Winnie the Pooh out for some heavier literature.
I had Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory on my shelves, but I had never read it. I’ve always loved King Arthur stories and been intrigued by Malory, who reportedly wrote the book in prison. I imagined him huddled over a candle and scraps of paper, finding beauty in the darkest places. That image adds a layer of intrigue to an already magical tale. Plus, knights and quests and dragons are all traditional themes for classic boy stories. If we were going to do knights, we might as well explore the King Arthur story at the source. But I soon learned that there’s a reason this book has not become a Disney movie. Reading it out loud in the small hours of the morning, with my sweet baby softly sleeping on my shoulder, I discovered just how many bloody battle scenes play out in Arthur’s quest for his throne. There are a lot. Swords crash. Blood spurts. Battle goes on for pages at a time. So, we abandoned King Arthur and looked for something a little more whimsical. Something I’d read before. Something with no surprises.
Alice in Wonderland seemed like a perfect choice. It’s a fun adventure stuffed with nuggets of wisdom, and there is a corresponding Disney movie, which validates its appropriateness for children. I expected to have a reading adventure with my son where we “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” I soon learned, however, that inserting my baby into my favorite books changes them. I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland, but looking down at the gentle, wide-eyed face of my baby boy as I read it made me focus on parts of the story I had never thought about before. Does it play like an LSD dream sequence? Yes, yes it does. Why is she taking food and potions from strangers? Her parents must be crazy with worry wondering where she is. Also, with the Queen of Hearts, we were right back where we started with King Arthur: people getting their heads lopped off.
Pip says in Great Expectations, “You are in every line I have ever read.” This was certainly becoming true for me as a mom. Great Expectations is my favorite Charles Dickens novel, with its colorful characters, creepy mansions, and unrequited love, but I almost couldn’t get through it as a new mom. As I read, my little one was right with Pip, dodging the bloodthirsty criminals and his sister’s beating cane, “tickler.” I realized then that motherhood had made me soft. In every story, there is struggle, and these books reminded me that innocence is the first thing to be sacrificed to the real world. I had a perfect baby, who would one day have to make his way through an imperfect world. It was terrifying. But for now, rocking in that chair in the small hours of the night, my baby was safe, wrapped in beautiful words just as I had planned.
As my son got older, it didn’t take long for him to decide for himself what he wanted to read. We made weekly trips to the library and came home with a bag full of new adventures. At first, it was Dr. Seuss, but then our shared world opened up to Thomas the Train, John Scieszka’s Trucktown series, and anything involving a talking vehicle. At first I was resistant, but his joy at these books made me love them. I was raising a reader. Through these early books, I learned that simple doesn’t mean bad and that there is artistry in being able to tell a story in just a few words. By then, my second son had arrived, and although he got less rocking chair time than his brother, he loved crawling on my lap with a book. With him, I skipped the bloody battlefields of King Arthur, and we stayed in the kids’ section of the library. I still have Goodnight Moon, The Going to Bed Book, and Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball committed to memory. I was still soft then, not because of the harsh world—because of the amount of love in it. The final picture in Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball—of the baby wombat curled up with his mom under the full moon—and the words in the last stanza get stuck in my chest even now: “But, when the day ends and the sun starts to fall, Then I do what I do best of all. I find somewhere soft, somewhere cozy and small . . . and that’s where I like to curl up in a ball.” For all of us, books were a warm lap, a soothing voice, snuggles, and love. They were one of the best parts of our every day.
That train skidded to a halt in elementary school. Suddenly, reading was hard. It became work. My oldest had to answer questions about books, and there were right and wrong answers. All of a sudden, I had a kid who didn’t like to read. I brought home stacks of books from the library and watched as each one got rejected. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get the spark back. My son liked to be read to, but when it came to reading alone, he wanted no part of it. He fell behind in reading at school, and his confidence plummeted. As a parent, watching your child struggle is awful, and not being able to help is even worse. He had a problem that I couldn’t fix, and, what’s more, couldn’t relate to at all. For me, reading was home. For him, it had become a battlefield.
I couldn’t reach him there and soon, it spilled into other areas. Reading is the gateway to communication, and when my son lost confidence in reading, he also lost confidence in writing. His teacher said that during writing time, he just stared at his blank page. When I asked him why, he said that he was thinking. When we dug into that, we discovered that he was afraid of writing things “wrong” and of his thoughts not being good enough to put on paper. That broke my heart. We tried to make writing exercises at home fun, like writing a silly story together, trading off one sentence at a time, or writing letters. Rather than being fun, it became a forced march of more homework and fighting through more books that didn’t interest him.
Then, one day, he came home from school talking about Captain Underpants. He was animated and excited, and he wanted to go to the library. He devoured those books, sometimes asking me how to pronounce words in them—like “carnivorous commode.” He read. And read. His love of these books pulled in my younger son, who was too little to read them on his own. So, we read them together—every poop and booger joke, every crazed supervillain and unbelievable plot twist. My boys became friends with George and Harold, and those loveable goofballs rescued my son from his reading battlefield. One night when the power went out, we started to make our own comics by candlelight. I was the girl who didn’t want to read picture books, and here I was showing my kids how to make comic books. We stayed up late, even after the power came back on, crafting stories and drawing pictures. Soon, my oldest son, who hated writing, was spending hours with a notebook making comics. My younger son, equally inspired, would take that spark and go on to invent his own superhero and write many, many books about his adventures. We’ve even written a few together. Without George and Harold, I’m not sure it would have occurred to them that they could do that. George and Harold reminded them not only that books are fun, but also that they—my sons—have a voice. My eldest used Captain Underpants to get his confidence back and once he had it, he used it as a springboard. He moved on to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the I Funny series and Wonder. As his reading improved, so did his writing.
I’m not going to tell you that Captain Underpants is literary gold. It’s filled with gross-out humor and ridiculous plot lines. It drives me crazy that words are misspelled in the comics, and I could do without having to think about “warm, greenish, custard-like mucus” or a “snot spewing cyborg.” But, at their core, the Captain Underpants stories are about fun and friendship. Jumping into that world with my kids meant exploring it together. We’ve talked through the plots and laughed and wondered what would happen next. These reading adventures have also sparked some interesting conversations. We had already talked about bullies and time travel when one day, my older son came home and asked me what I thought about people being gay. Some kids in his class were talking about it because in one of the Captain Underpants books, they go into the future, and Harold is living with a man. Had we not read those books together, I wonder if he would have been so quick to talk to me about it.
Books we love become part of us, and the characters open doors to give us a chance to relate to each other. When I was a kid, I loved Judy Blume’s series about Fudge. Aside from the books being hilarious, as an older sister with a younger, cuter, punishment-immune brother, I could relate to Peter’s life of being a “fourth grade nothing.” Good books remind us of the things we have in common. I hear parents complain about Captain Underpants all the time, but I will be forever grateful to Dav Pilkey for his books, which reached my kids when I couldn’t and empowered them to become readers. He doesn’t talk down to kids. He gets down on the ground and plays with them. This is a lesson I’ve taken with me into my own writing. Of course, there was a short time when my younger son wanted to leave the house (repeatedly) in his little white underwear and a red cape, but I can’t hold that against Dav Pilkey. I made my son put pants on, but let him keep the cape. Sometimes, a cape and a little confidence are just what you need.
I still love beautiful words, but parenthood has expanded my definition. In my youth, my reading list resembled a class syllabus, but motherhood forced me to soften my edges and look at books from another perspective. Although I still read Wuthering Heights almost every fall, I’ve learned that you can find beautiful words anywhere and that they often turn up in unexpected places. They are words that touch you and connect you to something. Sometimes, the words are Jane Eyre’s, when she declares her freedom saying, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me”; and sometimes, the words are Dav Pilkey’s, when he brings us into the midst of a terrifying army of talking toilets. After all, the real world is wide and there is room for all of it.