I missed the first session of my first graduate course, Victorian Novel, to attend a friend’s wedding. In my absence, I was signed up for the semester’s two required papers/presentations and involuntarily nominated to, upon my return, deliver a ten-page close reading from Dickens’s Bleak House and an essay on Jacques Derrida. But it was not in graduate school that I learned to critically read. Rather, I learned alongside my five young children.
Picture books were an apprenticeship that lasted more than a decade.
After our first child, Audrey, learned to walk, I pledged that whenever she brought me a book, I would read it. Sometimes this meant abandoning the soup and dropping to the floor in front of the stove. It always meant capitulating to demands at bedtime. Reading books at Audrey’s caprice was a source of constant interruption, although she also soon learned to content herself with books all by herself. In a picture of her as a toddler, Audrey sits by the bookshelf in the corner of our family room where she has pulled down all the books within reach. She is a slippery fish in a sea of words, casting a sly glance over her shoulder. “You can’t punish me for this,” her eyes say. I can’t, and I don’t.
But the pledge I made when Audrey was young was not the pledge I upheld after four more children joined our family. Life swelled with activity, and it wasn’t as easy to leave off stirring the soup just because someone needed a story. In fact, I fear that I’ve read too little to our youngest twin sons, especially now that one of them insists he “hates reading,” he preferring the motion of a basketball to the forced quiet of a book.
“The Tale of Despereaux?” Andrew, our nine-year-old, asked last night before bed. (As you might guess, Andrew is not the aforementioned son.) It was 7:15 p.m., and I needed to leave soon to pick up his older sister from her friend’s house.
“Okay,” I smiled. “But we won’t have long.” We cozied into the corner of our red sectional—Andrew, leaning into my right shoulder, Colin, his twin brother, leaning into the left and sucking loudly on the paw of his lamb.
“PRINCESS!” Despereaux shouted. “Princess, I have come to save you.” Despereaux is armed with a needle, and he is prepared to battle for her life. “Despereaux,” she whispered. She recognizes the mouse who had braved speaking to her under penalty of death. “Reader, nothing is sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name.”
I gulp air, holding back the tears that my children have learned to expect from me when we read together.
“Mom, are you crying?” Andrew asks, half-exasperated, half-pleased. I lie and say that I’m not.
If I say that children’s books have been an apprenticeship for me, I mean they’ve taught me a lot of things. Taught me to be human, to name whatever sadness, anger, and fear that rise in my throat. Despereaux learns about love, and not because it is explained to him in theoretical terms, but because someone calls his name. And that’s the literary power of a children’s book, that it traffics in the concrete. A children’s book does not abide our impulse for abstraction; it puts flesh on skeletal ideas. What a children’s book will never tolerate is hot-air and pontification—all the puffed up, self-important, hollow ways we adults try expressing ourselves. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words.
Jemima Puddle-Duck, in the Beatrix Potter story, is a simpleton because she doesn’t grasp the meaning of the “sage and onions” which her bushy long-tailed gentleman friend has asked her to bring to his dinner-party. Peter Rabbit is a mischief-maker, losing his shoes in Mr. McGregor’s garden; his mother puts him to bed without the bread, milk, and blackberries that his sisters enjoy. And in perhaps one of my favorite Beatrix Potter stories, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, the wonderful irony is that when the red brick dollhouse with the muslin curtains is raided by two mice—Tom Thumb, and his wife, Hunca Munca—the burglars grow furious upon learning that the food in the kitchen is not real. “Tom Thumb lost his temper. He put the ham in the middle of the floor, and hit it with the tongs and with the shovel—bang, bang, smash, smash!” These stories aren’t held together by the esoteric but by the material: shoes and sage and shovels. Which isn’t to say that they have nothing grand to say, only that they say it in ways that the body can understand.
I wonder: in bidding us to be children, is God inviting us into his gloriously real world of “rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought”? Might we be challenged to embrace our material lives and our bodies rather than suspecting them? I think of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which inhabitants of the dreary gray town—Hell or Purgatory—hope (falsely) that twilight will give way, not to night and judgment, but to dawn and hope. One man proudly announces that when this happens, everyone will cease longing for the heavenly country made of the “real.” “That passion for ‘real’ commodities which our friend speaks of is only materialism, you know. It’s retrogressive. Earth-bound! A hankering for matter. But we look on this spiritual city . . . A sublime thought.”
But as Lewis illustrates, hell is the most spiritual of places—heaven, the most material. When the passengers of the celestial bus arrive in heaven and disembark, the first thing they notice is the solidity of things. “It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.” To believe in the incarnation is to necessarily leave off searching for the fool’s gold of the “spiritual.” When we root ourselves more firmly in the real, as children and poets do, might we also see God?
Life with God is not, as I long presupposed, something theoretical and lived with the mind, but something embodied and lived with the gut. There is more poetry than we might ever have imagined in life with God: we, bearing the image of God; Christ, bearing the image of man. All these years of reading with my children have taught me what I should have learned in the doctrine of the incarnation: that we find God in the flesh. It is a paradox that spiritual life begs to be less spiritual.
This, my Father’s world, is a material world. And I am a material girl.
Cover photo by Marina Vitale.