Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Good Books

What if all you ever wanted was a kid who loves books, and your daughter turns out to have bad taste in literature?

Witness me in pregnancy: overinformed modern mother-to-be, sleepless with her laptop, several browser tabs deep into exhaustive comparison shopping for the perfect baby sling. I careened toward my due date nearly deafened by the voices of expert advice-givers; I weighed myself down daily with a fresh catch of anecdotes skimmed from baby-related listservs. For someone who didn’t know what the word “onesie” referred to until just before her daughter was born, I was determined to be a fast study.

One thing I knew for sure: it’s never too early to begin reading to a baby. A lifelong book lover, I figured I’d be naturally proficient at this task of parenting, if nothing else. Not only proficient, in fact, but blissed out. In pregnancy, I dreamed of cuddling in a comfy chair avec l’infant, paging through exquisitely illustrated books as sunbeams fell upon our heads.

I began to prepare, thinking about the books I’d loved as a kid—Leo Lionni’s A Color of His Own, the requisite Pat the Bunny and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Onto the registry they went. I dipped deeper and deeper into lists and blogs, hit the kids’ section of the local bookstores, and slowly, I became heavy, not just with child, but with a realization: there are an awful lot of children’s books out there.

More than we could ever own. More than we could ever even check out from the library. Could I happily breeze through the children’s section and pluck a few of the abundant, perfectly decent titles off the shelves? I could not.

This wasn’t going to be the gentle, soft-focus pastime I’d envisioned. No, I was going to have to curate this kid’s reading life. My mission: to compose the perfect at-home children’s library, a selection of brilliant essentials that would provide education, escape, comfort, inspiration, goofy delight, and a nudge toward good values.

But it wasn’t just that. I began to see that buying books for my little one could have something in common with the other baby-item searches I’d slogged through: the quest for the Right car seat, the Right stroller, the Right crib. All within the Right price range.

Now, books are surprisingly democratic in their pricing. And they’re the ultimate good-for-you gift. Parents worry about spoiling their children from day one—worry and revel in it at once. But books exist in a lofty, guilt-free zone, the unanimous judgment being that you can never have too many.

But you can still have the wrong ones.

My daughter was born, grew, sat up, ate mush, and all the while I was happy with the books I’d carefully selected for her. Thalia, however, seemed not so terribly interested. I began to wonder if, horror of horrors, my squirmy kid was not going to like reading. But she grew some more, and I watched her reading enthusiasm grow, too. Only it was growing for books I didn’t choose—books I considered problematic.

She sat still for Farmtime Friends, a sticky, scuffed board book she dragged from a dirty bin of toys at our neighborhood coffee shop. She babbled at a worn copy of Things That Go. Hardly worthy of being called “book” at all, just some piece of mass-produced, chemically printed junk shipped over by the containerload from China, my inner voice, too informed by years of reading Harper’s, crabbed at the sight of these titles. But if she liked it, we would read it. I sat cross-legged on the floor and turned the grimy pages, using my chipper voice with the storybook cow and the pig, and thinking, “Well, at home I can show her the good books.”

But watching her smile at one of those trashed, ultrasimple board books, I began to understand that I was thinking about the pleasures of reading the wrong way—not for Thalia at all, but for me, according to my own dream of what reading to a child should be like.

It took me just a little longer than it should have to realize that I needed to hold off on the books containing sentences of more than six words, and regale her instead with simpler fare featuring photos of animals and rain boots and ducklings—and that it really didn’t matter one whit whether I liked these books or not. Anything with bold colors and simple words and images she could recognize would work. One of the many beautiful things about babies is their absolute lack of taste, and when I finally got my bearings in that judgment-free zone, I was suddenly blissed out.

So I loosened up. In came the Elmo books rescued from a box at a yard sale. In came the Baby Animals Touch & Feel board book, its cover caked in mud. I rubbed it clean and it became one of Thalia’s frequent requests. We touched, we felt, we were happy.

Not that I haven’t stopped bringing home titles that intrigue me, books that seem special—the books I hope she’ll remember as lovingly as I do. And what do you know: As Thalia has grown, she’s become very fond of many of them. These days, at two, she’s asserting preferences, and what she wants changes day to day. I can hardly predict what she’ll swat away and what she’ll embrace.

Lately we’ve been devouring library titles, some picked almost willy-nilly off the shelves, others sought out because I’ve heard about them from some veteran parents. Sure, sometimes I nearly fall asleep on the fifth book at bedtime (or I rush through storytime altogether, anxious to get her in bed before 30 Rock). And, sure, I’m totally faking the cheer when she lobs that big, heavy Elmo Look-n-Feel thing into my lap. Who knows: later on she may reject reading altogether. But for now, all evidence suggests that I’ve got the book lover I always wanted.