She didn’t want them to go. “I have attachment issues,” my daughter Kate declared. She pouted and slipped the books back onto her bookcase.
“Well,” I said, surveying the mound of picture books on her bed, “I have clutter issues.”
“But that’s my childhood!” she protested.
The pile of books was only a fraction of the ones we had owned since she was a baby. I started collecting books for my daughter before she was even born, snagging them from places we visited—the art museum, a vacation town, or some place of historic significance. We have constantly culled them, replacing as interests evolved, curating new passions. Some were donated, others passed on to other children, some were simply packed away for “someday.”
Now, in her room, Kate is inundated with books about the Titanic (still a major interest), and also The Adventures of Tintin, because he’s a redhead, like her, and, she sheepishly admits, her first crush (before Leonardo DiCaprio).
“You are a sophomore in high school. Do you really need these picture books about the Titanic? You know everything in them. You could probably write the book.”
“We can keep some,” I promised, “just not all.”
I began making piles. Keep. Toss. Repurpose. Looking at the heap of books, something like sadness burrowed deep within. Some were inscribed by us, given to her on her birthday or a holiday, others by relatives who had passed. Some held precious memories of a particular stage, a tender expression of joy. I selected a glossy Berenstain Bears book and caressed the dog-eared cover. I felt the weight of the moment, too. Some of these books had once belonged to me. As a child, I had dreamed of being an author-illustrator just like Stan and Jan Berenstain, imparting messages of love, patience, and growth. With the book in my hand, time wrapped its arms around me, as my father once did, as he taught me to read from these very pages. A wedge developed in my throat.
Buried amongst the treasures was an unsightly volume of children’s stories. The pages smelled old, briny—and yet the faded, highly detailed vintage illustrations pulled me in. Train yards and families on vacations, stories of what daddies do all day, with father behind a desk wearing pajamas, a five-o’clock shadow on his face, a wastebasket filled with balled paper. “Some daddies write the books we read,” the story goes. The inside cover was inscribed by my mother, now deceased: “Happy First Birthday.”
Our two daughters, at 16 and 14, were no longer the target age for these gorgeously illustrated, portable works of art. And yet, for some reason, I was not nearly as sentimental as Kate. Or, perhaps I was, and merely trying to convince her otherwise. Kate clung to the books like a life raft, hugging them to her chest. “But I loved Fancy Nancy,” she said. She pulled Madeline from the pile. “Her, too?”
I nodded. “High school, kiddo. You’re in high school.”
Truth be told, something gnawed at me. By excising these books from my daughter’s life, I would also strip them from mine.
I looked to Kate and saw long limbs, a brilliant mind. I could not fathom how time had slipped through my fingers, transforming a little girl into a young woman. Those little-kid days still pulled at my heartstrings. It had been our practice to read to the girls before naptime and after. One book—nap—another book. We read as a family at bedtime, too, both girls vying for the soft nest between my crisscross-applesauce legs, as I enveloped child and book, the other in dad’s lap. I enjoyed the cadence of silly words, the bloom of color from gardens and trees, and dogs who didn’t go to school on Saturdays. I delighted in little girls declaring nothing frozen, fried, or dyed, fresh-from-the-garden-only. I relished the sweet scent of just-shampooed hair, or the sticky-fresh smell of grass and sunshine on their skin.
As we read, I pointed out illustrations, tiny details they might not notice. We talked about what we thought would happen next and created alternate endings; I even tried out different voices, eliciting laughter and sometimes annoyance when I didn’t do them right.
There was such magic in that jumble of books on my daughter’s bed. The absurdity of Dr. Seuss and Mo Willems, whose Trixie reminded me of my daughter when she couldn’t quite get the words out, ‘aggle-flabble-wabble,’ and how she finally did, at the end. Between these covers were mischievous and inquisitive children learning about selfhood, solving mysteries and fighting dragons.
The books, as my daughter said, were her childhood. How could I possibly give them away, deny her that safe corner of imagination?
Would it be shortsighted to eliminate that scaffolding?
Could I do that to myself?
“Okay, how about this: you keep the ones you really feel attached to in a special box . . . that we relocate?”
She assessed the pile. “Okay.”
But the books didn’t move. “I want them all.”
I purchased plastic totes. We loaded the books inside and hefted them to the crawl space. All of them.
While there, I found yellowed paperbacks of my favorite tween and teen books: Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan, slightly paranormal titles with houses perched on crumbling rocky overlooks, mysteries, and teen angst. I scooped them into my arms and said, “You’ll love these.”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
We took the books to her room and arranged them on her bookshelf, next to the Varsity Tennis ribbon, the dolls dressed in miniature ensembles from 1912, the remaining Tintin books she couldn’t bear to part with, a decorated copy of Little Women.
“I still can’t believe you made me get rid of all those books.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “You can read them anytime.”
“It’s not the same.”
I nodded. Her statement struck at my practicality, hitting a vein of emotion; it was difficult to shake off.
We often hear how beneficial it is to read to children. It builds vocabulary, storytelling skills, sequencing, bonding, and so much more. But rarely do we hear how good it is for parents to read to children. Aren’t we benefitting, too? Looking back, those books were a comfort to me; those early days of snuggling small children in the crevices of my body, eager for a story, each inquisitive in their own right, fueled me.
In the throes of parenting young children—the endless, often isolating days—the books became an anchor, a renewal, an escape. I relished the imagery, the artwork. I found, in the great green room, that the words captivated and soothed not just my daughters, but me. They lulled me into greater insight, allowing my skills of observation to sharpen. Illustrators must know their magic—their power. Through their art, they led me through thickets and hazy spaces to a kind of domestic bliss, a comforting and centering piece of my harried day. The books provided a script, an accessible mode of connecting with my children in a way my tired body and brain could not. They helped me teach through characters or narrative structure, which I could not have done as effectively on my own, because I was exhausted.
Those afternoon reading sessions were like pressing pause on my frenetic parenthood. I slowed down. I felt supported. My daughters must have felt that, too. At least, that is my hope. Perhaps that is why Kate doesn’t want to part with the books that defined her childhood.
As a book reviewer, I am often sent copies of children’s books well ahead of their release. I could decline them; we’re really not the intended demographic anymore. But they always generate a tingle, like opening a gift.
This afternoon, I wield the book with a giant grin. “Let’s read!”
You might expect my enthusiasm to be met with groans, teenagers disappearing into the corners of their rooms with cell phones. Maybe I half-expect this, too. Is this the moment they’ll turn away, deny—abandon—the magic? But they find a spot in the upstairs landing, tuck their knees to their chests, and lean against the wall—and me—while I crack open the spine.