Daughter of Eve

“I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.” 

Inscription at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to my 7 year-old daughter recently. It was my choice, but I think it went over pretty well. My daughter is on the “cusp” of reading, herself. She struggled all year through very simple early reader books, assigned every other day by her grade 1 teacher. She struggled and my wife and I (and friends who were often over) suffered through them too. They really were just terrible stories. They are, by no means, meant to be read for pleasure. They are solely designed as “learning tools” and a result they repeat the same words over and over again, the sentences are simple AND YET AT THE SAME TIME CLUNKY, and even though each book was no more than 10 pages each, it was a chore to get through even one. (Speaking of clunky sentences…)

The idea is to get your child to read two of them a night, maybe multiple times, then write them down in a little reading log along with your comments. I could never get through more than one of them at a time, and my daughter became adept at tricking me into telling her “problem” words rather than having her doing the hard work of sounding them out herself. I suppose the comments section was meant to be a place where you were supposed to write short affirmations like, “Great job reading, Audrey!” or “You’re doing well!”, but I often would make a comment on the story itself, like “That dog sure had a hard time finding that ball!” or “I wonder what was in that sack after all?”. I resisted to urge, every time, to write something like, “If I have to listen to ANOTHER POORLY WRITTEN “BOOK” about Fluffy the dog I am going to SET MYSELF ON FIRE!”

A child of two library workers, we thought that reading would be second nature to our daughter, but I guess like almost everything else, you’ve gotta put your time in. I don’t ever actually remember finding reading a struggle. One moment I wasn’t reading, then I remember picking up The CrissCross Shadow at the end of Grade 2 (Hardy Boys FTW!) and just reading it from cover to cover on a family road trip. I’m assuming I just don’t remember the struggle leading up to that point. I DO remember my parents faithfully reading to me and my brother almost every night, and I saw them reading all the time, too, so I guess osmosis played a role in there somewhere.

So I guess my theory is that reading to her a bit every night MAY help her with her own reading, and I can actually choose books above her reading level, books that are actually well written and fun to read/listen to. My wife and I initially started with some Roald Dahl, but we made the mistake (at least for us) to insist on reading to her every night, regardless of the reader. Since we both work a couple of evenings each week, it meant that we were “tag teaming” the reading job at bedtime. This would have been fine if it were a book with which we were both familiar, but I had never read The BFG before, and I was coming into it every third chapter or so. I had no idea what was going on. It didn’t really matter to our daughter, she was present every night, but it felt like I was watching a movie that I kept falling asleep and waking up in, and I never really got a sense of the overall narrative. The same thing happened with James and the Giant Peach, and I never really got the full story until we saw a musical version of it last winter.

Our great plan of reading chapter books every night fell away, and we went back to reading shorter picture books to her (“it’s still reading!” we told ourselves).

She got a copy of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 for her birthday this year. (It was her 7th birthday, so I don’t know what the hell was wrong with the kid that gave THAT to her, but that’s another story). I loved reading Beverly Cleary when I was a kid, but I was more of a Mouse and the Motorcycle man than a Ramona man back then. I still read some of the Ramona books, but who doesn’t love a talking mouse that rides a motorcycle? Oddly enough, I never got into Stuart Little. Maybe I only had room in my heart for one talking mouse? Also, isn’t it weird that human woman gives birth to a mouse? That’s what happens in Stuart Little, right? The mom has an affair with a rodent and we all just have to pretend it’s a miracle? I’m not down with that. As far as I remember, there is no cross-species hanky-panky in Beverly Cleary. Also, we decided that whoever started a book with her, would see that book through to the end. No tag-teaming, as it was too jarring for me to come into a story half-read by someone else.

So, we read Ramona, and I had forgotten how excellent it was. As I kid, I must have identified with Ramona, or more likely the beleaguered older sister Beezus. Now when I read it, I identified with the parents, putting up with all the craziness and also trying to make ends meet. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is one of the later books in the series, (again, why would a kid give a random book in a series as a birthday present? What was WRONG with that kid???), so we went back and read the first couple together. We still have a few to go in that series (and I can’t wait to blow her little mind when I introduce that talking mouse on his motorcycle), but I was looking for something new.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe came to mind. I was a late in coming to Narnia, having only read them as an adult after stumbling onto C.S. Lewis’s adult Christian writing. I came to him through J.R.R. Tolkien, who would meet weekly with C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and OTHER AUTHORS WHO ONLY HAD INITIALS FOR FIRST NAMES at an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child (or Bird and Baby if you were LOCAL) in the 1940’s.They called themselves the Inklings and many early versions of the Middle Earth and Narnia stories were previewed, work-shopped and debated there. I bet if T.S. Eliot or T. E. Lawrence were around then, they would have been welcomed too. #initials

I sort of read the Narnia series out-of-order the first time through. I started with The Magician’s Nephew, which was labeled BOOK 1 in the set I had from the library. But it is BOOK 1 in the same sense that The Phantom Menace is the first Star Wars movie. The WRONG sense. In both cases, you should really start with the thing that came out first, (Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope released May 25, 1977 in the latter example, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe released October 16, 1950 in the former example).

If you start with the Magician’s Nephew, the big reveal of who Aslan is gets ruined, and in any case, the LWW (I’m using shorthand!), is just a better all around introduction to the world of Narnia. If you only read one Narnia book, it should be the LWW, and at my pace, who knows how many we will get through before this golden window of opportunity closes? How many more months (or even weeks) do I have until my heart gets broken (again and again, it seems) when my daughter tells me she’d rather read on her own and not have me read to her? I still want to squeeze in at least one Harry Potter book before independent reading kicks in, too. An aside: I remember enjoying at least the first 3 books of that series (when J.K. Rowling still listened to the advice of her editor. J.K.! She could have also sat at the Inklings’ table, with all those initials on her front.) Her later books, in my opinion, got so convoluted, and in any case, I blew through them so quickly (at the time to avoid spoilers from the wider culture) I didn’t really enjoy them the way they were probably meant to be read. I probably would enjoy them more now than I did then. I can’t really see myself re-reading the WHOLE series again, but it might be fun to visit that world  with my daughter.

In any case: back to Narnia.

It was the first time my daughter really didn’t want me to stop reading, ever. The chapters were short enough that we could easily get through one, maybe even two at a time before bed, but no matter how much we read, she always wanted a bit more. So that’s good, right? I wasn’t surprised that she identified with Lucy, the youngest sibling, the most. She weirdly insisted that I whenever I was to read the name, “Susan”, I should substitute the name “Lila”. I did that for a few chapters, then asked her if she still wanted me doing that, and she said I could start calling her “Susan” again. She also liked Peter, and was scared of the White Witch, and wasn’t sure what to make of Edmund, the traitor. She wasn’t fazed by talking Beavers, although I had to explain who “Father Christmas” was to her. Isn’t it crazy that Santa shows up and pretty much arms the kids with weapons? It’s messed up, right? I tried to time my readings so that the sacrifice of Aslan (SPOILER) and his miraculous resurrection (SPOILERS, OMG) would be read in the same sitting. I didn’t want her to go to sleep thinking that Aslan was truly defeated by the powers of evil. I strived to give her Good Friday and Easter Sunday in one complete marathon sitting, and I succeeded.

I was tempted to connect the dots for our daughter by talking about the parallels between Aslan and Jesus, but in the end I decided to just let the LWW stand on its own, and to let her take her own meaning from it in her own time. I don’t think she really got it, but then again, I’m not sure how clear she is with the whole “Jesus dying on a cross and then coming back three days later to take on the sins of the world” business either. I can’t say for sure I fully get it, myself. You can’t really expect a 7 year-old to make sense of the Easter story, I don’t think. Maybe I’d better stick with talking mice.



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