prizes, southern charm, and other things you get out of PARP week

Tonight my daughter was reading Sheila Turnage’s superb Three Times Lucky when I rudely interrupted her. It was time for sleep.  “There is a murder in this book, Mommy.”  I had been in a hurry until she said that. I half sat down. I knew if I fully sat down it would scare her, make her think that the murder in Tupelo Landing was deadly serious and maybe not fictional. And at this moment it was more important to emphasize the fake in fiction.

“Nothing interesting usually happens in Tupelo Landing,” she insisted.  Was that a drawl? She’s been working on her drawl. “Like here,” she continued. “Nothing like that ever happens here.”

So?” I shrugged.

“So, there might be a murder.” Pause. “Possibly me.”ThreeTimesLu

If that doesn’t make you laugh it’s because I am not telling the story well. She’s like a sitcom character, my child. Finding drama in otherwise earnest moments. She is able to deliver lines like that one, possibly me, without making you feel the least bit sorry for her.  And yet she is genuinely concerned—she is having an awakening reading this book, the same way she perked up when she met August in Wonder, or when Mr. Terupt found himself in a coma, or when she met the wide-awake Melody in Out of My Mind. My daughter willed her way through that one, careening toward triumph with a girl whose experience very few could possibly understand in any complete way. But Melody means the world to her now.  The experience will stay with her absolutely forever. (And don’t think my husband and I didn’t do a quick Google search when my daughter emerged in tears from her room, searching frantically for some news on Mr. Terupt’s gloomy condition. And don’t think we didn’t all breath a sigh of relief when we discovered a sequel. Yeah, we did. We ruined it.)

This week is P.A.R.P. week (Parents As Reading Partners) at my kids’ school and we all make a big old effort to read together as much as possible. We read beside them, read out loud to them, let them read out loud to us, and it’s a fun way to spend the week, because who doesn’t need a little more pressure during the school week, am I right? No, really. It’s nice. They love it. There are prizes.

To me, though, the real partnership comes when my kids are reading without me.  I have written about the little things I do to test my kids, to make sure they would survive out in the wilds of suburbia if I’m running late to pick them up.  Will they be scrappy? Will they have gumption like Mo LoBeau? Would they think to make a home out of an abandoned boxcar? Maybe. And, I think the reading will help. Our kids are more sheltered than ever. We shield them from so much in part because there are more bad things out there than ever before, and many of them are but a clickety-click away. Partly, though, they are sheltered because we manage their every breath, log them in and out of things all day, keeping tabs on their homework, their instruments, their tests, their social schedule, their sports. It is the way it is now, no matter how much I want to retreat to the Atari and MTV haze of my own 80’s youth.  Frogger, anyone? Right.

THEREFORE, I let my daughter read books about things that are big and scary and emotional and grueling as my gift to her.  Please read these things so you will see the world and all the people in it and all their strife and all their glory and may it make you a more complete and more resilient human. And so her school librarian is apparently not so happy with me. You hear these things through the 9-year-old grapevine, the gossips. My daughter has indeed been told that some of her favorite books are inappropriate. She is wonderful and well-meaning, our librarian. I trust her taste level and her vast experience and her intentions. She loves books and children and she makes my kids wish every day was a library day.  It is her job to be a gatekeeper, and I’m a-okay with her opinions the same way I’m okay with murder in Tupelo Landing. I can handle it. And I think, with my help, my daughter can handle it, too—coping and feeling and trying on a southern drawl because the exposure has meant something to her.  I can’t help how it makes me smile, talking about murder and Southern-ness at bedtime. I know, I know. You had to be there.

But here’s the thing. Together, my daughter and I will find our way through this book and many others still to come.  G-d willing, we’ll hunker down under the covers and hold hands, talking about lots of things in the years to come. I’ll help her, she’ll help me. We’ll be partners.

Here Is Charlotte’s Web

Dear Readers,
I could write about every one of E.B. White’s books and never run out of ways to read them again and again. But let’s face it. Charlotte’s Web is the ultimate tin-can-stilts book. Wilbur lifts up Fern, Charlotte lifts up Wilbur, and ultimately each and every one of us is lifted up by a community hell-bent on saving a pig’s life. Well, okay, they don’t all want to save his life just for so. After all, more than one of the farmers has come at the poor pig with an ax, so it isn’t like vegetarianism has suddenly taken them over or anything like that.

What happens is that they all start to get wrapped up in something rather uncommon—something of a miracle. Charlotte—the wonderful, industrious Charlotte is uncommon from the get-go. She takes on in friendship a suffering pig—suffering because he is desperately lonely for a friend, having no idea that he is also on the short-list for the chopping block. When he alienates all of the other farm animals with his whining and distress, it is Charlotte who comes out from the dark corner of the barn to show Wilbur the light.

It is Charlotte who finds Wilbur terrific! radiant! humble! and sets about telling the world. What happens next is something akin to a barn-raising, with each and every person and animal becoming invested in this pig the way a farming community invests in pulling hard on the lying-down side of that barn and yanking it up into a wall.

It is the same gusto Fern displays from page one. In an angsty rage typical of her age group, she saves baby Wilbur from her father’s hand, and right away, her commitment to taking care of that runt, complete with a bottle and pram, gives her purpose and gives her a friend and mostly gives her something to hold onto and pull.

Even Templeton—the most self-involved children’s book character of all time—takes hold of one of those ropes and pulls. And soon, he has a role second to only Charlotte in the saving of Wilbur’s life.

“We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Charlotte, to Wilbur in one of many moments I cannot read aloud without choking back sobs in front of my children.

We know—of course we know—that what E.B. White has done here is special. He writes with a respect to his subjects and to his setting that is unparalleled. And with his exquisite touch, he creates an atmosphere—not just of stinky manure piles and clucking, haughty geese, but an atmosphere of friendship and honesty and the cruelties we must face together.

So as I read those lines to my daughter, my heart heavy with both Charlotte’s burdens and with her demise—I realized that what I was teaching my daughter with this story was that as we lift up others, as we pull hard on the ropes, we are lifted up ourselves.

Some pig, indeed.