Recently, my kids and I found ourselves in a waiting situation without much to do. Uncharacteristically, we didn’t even have books with us. To pass the time, I used my phone to look up some conversation starter questions online.
One question carried us for several minutes. What’s your favorite book from childhood. I have never felt more success as a mother than when they both assured me I knew the answers without asking. And I did!
The answer for my older one (age 22) was The Velveteen Rabbit. My 19-year-old still loves The Story of Ferdinand. Not only did I get a warm glow from realizing I knew my kids well enough to guess the answers correctly, but I experienced a little swelling of the heart from the answers themselves.
My husband and I have raised our children without formal religion. But we do have strong principles we’ve tried to instill, and some meaningful rituals. One constant I was able to provide was bedtime reading every night. Long after my kids both had mastered literacy skills and were plowing through books on their own, we still gathered for a nightly read-aloud. For each of my kids, it lasted until about age 12 or 13. No exaggeration.
For that many years I experienced the joys of discovering new books with them (Harry Potter!), and also sharing with them beloved books from my past — ones that had influenced me and given meaning to my life. Looking back, I see now, some of these became our sacred texts, in a way.
Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit encapsulates everything that is good and pure in my eldest — a huge heart and an ability to look past surface appearances and see inner beauty. “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” That passage is the essence of my firstborn, right there.
As for The Story of Ferdinand, the 1936 book by Munro Leaf — my younger child is Ferdinand. I gave him the book when he was six years old and not meeting the expectations of people who called him “a bruiser” based on his size. He was big for his age and had a surprisingly deep voice for a young child. But his nature was sensitive and inclined more to peaceful contemplation than bruising. Walking down the sidewalk after a rain, he would stop to save earthworms from the pavement, placing them gently back into the grass.
My favorite book from childhood? It probably says a lot about me, too. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, in which a child constructs an entire world using only his imagination and one crayon. This was a great lesson for someone growing up without a lot of luxuries, but with a busy mind.
Oscar Wilde said, ““It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” There might be more than a kernel of truth here.
What books from your childhood endure and have lasting meaning for you?