Monday, July 18, 2011

Carolee: Boys and Books

My son will be leaving for college soon and the event causes me to pause and reflect upon the many ways we have shared stories over the years. It was difficult to read to him as a young child because he would barely sit still long enough to eat, much less listen to a story. It was ironic that we didn’t do a lot of shared reading until he was a teenager and we read aloud from his honor’s English texts.

One spring he was assigned East of Eden by John Steinbeck and given very little time to read this mammoth book. Between his hectic schedule and mine, it was difficult to find time to read together. One night I was on my way to pick up my daughter and her friend from the gym and my son called to ask if I could come to the restaurant where he worked. He’d cut his thumb and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I picked him up, then went to the gym, got the girls, went looking for a minor emergency center – none were open – and finally went home to drop off the girls, call the nurse hotline, and assess the damage.

After much deliberation, it was decided that to be on the safe side, a trip to the emergency room was in order. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to grab East of Eden before we left. My son asked what I was doing and I told him that if we were going to sit in the ER all night, it would be a good time to read. He nodded and smiled and I could tell what he was thinking – What is it about mothers that makes them remember Steinbeck on the way to the ER?

We found a couple of chairs in the hospital away from the blaring television and sick people and started reading. Then we went back to talk to the doctor who tried to decide whether the wound warranted stitches, tape, or Super Glue. I was quite surprised to discover that the medical staff was contemplating using something on my son that I could have picked up at the hardware store. Of course their version of Super Glue was sterile. And about ten times more expensive.
As the doctor left and sent a nurse to clean the cut, my son and I continued reading about the demise of the Trask family and it made me think about how sometimes reading and sharing books is a leisure activity surrounded by hot chocolate and melting marshmallows, but more and more it’s a task squeezed into the “found moments” of our lives… the dentist’s office, a visit to the dermatologist’s waiting room, and of course, those unexpected ER excursions.

This past weekend we had another unexpected opportunity to share a book when we took a mother-son road trip for college orientation. Foreseeing that we would spend nearly 20 hours on the road, I suggested my son take something to read and gave him a pile of books with teen boy protagonists, to which he replied, “I don’t like fiction.”

Those are not words a fiction author ever wants to hear, especially from her son, but I’ve always made it a policy to support his reading choices and never criticize them. I work at a public school as a speech-language pathologist. Most of my students are boys, and most of them hate to read. I go to great efforts to try to connect them to material they will like. Something that will spark their interest and keep them reading. It’s different for every one. Over the years I’ve purchased graphic novels of classic monsters (Beowulf and Frankenstein), non-fiction picture books about famous battles, and comedy classics like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants.

My most recent novel, Take Me There (Simon Pulse), is about a boy who can’t read or write but dreams of being a poet. He hates books, or thinks he does, because reading is a struggle, but in the end he discovers that books and words can liberate him.

I suppose that’s all I’ve ever wanted for my son, my students… to discover the power of words. So as I was packing, I asked my son, “What do you like to read?”

His answer was philosophy. News to me.

I went back through my shelves and pulled out several books along that vein, not too long, not too preachy. He chose The Fifth Agreement: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel and Don Jose Ruiz. As we drove across deserts, into valleys, and through mountains, we talked about what it means to be impeccable with your word, how to go through life without taking things personally or jumping to conclusions, and how a person can live in the world while remaining detached from its negative influences.

The experience reminded me of why I love books and why I’m a storyteller. Books of all kinds, whether they be non-fiction, comedy, romance or history, help us think about what we value and clarify our ideals. We may not always follow those ideals, but books help us know what they are.

While at freshmen orientation, my son registered for classes. Among his choices were astrology, philosophy, and physics. On the way home I asked if he would be interested in a book called Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav which combines mysticism and physics. He said he would, so upon our return I immediately went down to the bookstore near my house and ordered a copy. I’m sure it will make a nice addition to his dorm room. I don’t know if he will actually read it with his study obligations, his part time job, his intramural sports, and his busy social life, but it will be waiting patiently on his shelf for the time when he is ready, like a seed waiting for rain, an idea waiting for words, or a mother waiting for a phone call from a son trying to find his place in the world.


  1. I think this is a lovely story. I've been reading to my boys every night since they were five. We've been through Dickens to Rowling, and they love to read. And even though they are just tweens, I hope they always love to read. Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Aw... I love this post! The ER story is a great one. :)

  3. As a child I worked with a speech pathologist three times a week, trying like hell to stunt my stutter. With her guidance I learned that reading was liberation. The words in my head never hung in my throat or caught on my tongue; my thoughts were not bound by my stuttering curse. After five years I was cured. My stutter was dead but my love for literature was alive and well, and all because of a wonderful woman who devoted her life to helping others. Sounds to me like your son is not the only fortunate child in your life. :-)

  4. What a great relationship you have with your son! The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a good choice. Zukov explains a lot of physics and mathematical concepts that are fascinating and that relate to philosophy in ways easy to grasp. I loved that book. Unfortunately a later book seemed to go a little over the edge, but that book was a winner.

  5. Thanks for all of your wonderful comments.

  6. Thanks for the article, I read it and the post and I have to say that this all gets more confusing when you are new to all this,just when I think I understand it all, someone throws in something new.
    I guess I will all click in to place at some stage!
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  7. I have two sons and a daughter and since I remember, I have always tried to motivate and persuade my children in the nice habit of reading and I know that they will thank me later