What I say: “It’s late and you’re tired, so we only have time for one book tonight.”
What is true: It’s not that late; he’s really not that tired, I am; he will probably lie awake for at least an hour talking to himself; and we actually have time for three to four books tonight.
What is also true: I’m the laziest mother alive because there are (many) times when reading aloud is a complete drag.
Reading to your kids is one of those vegetables of motherhood. It does all kinds of crazy-good things for kids — develops their vocabulary, makes them love books and stimulates them to ask sometimes-impossible-to-answer questions about life — and when I’ve served my 3-year-old son at least 20 minutes of read-aloud time (20 being the magical number, according to experts), I feel as virtuous as if I’ve chewed my way through a kale salad.
But at the end of a very long day, just the act of sitting upright and saying words – even if they are lovely, sweet words about lost pockets and little houses – is exhausting. And as if being bleary-eyed and bone-tired at the shank of 7 p.m. weren’t enough to put me off reading aloud forever, there are certain books that my son loves but that exacerbate my already exhausted state so much that I hide them.
Take Richard Scarry’s books, which I adored growing up. (Please. They’re on the floor behind the bookshelf.)
In Richard Scarry’s world, there is a lot to look at, but not a lot to read, and when there’s not a lot to read, you have to make up things. I could go that route, and I probably should go that route, but since I am a writer by profession, having to write aloud someone else’s book to my kid at the end of a long day kind of ticks me off.
My math professor husband, who loves a good counting book, has his own Richard Scarry gripe: “The Best Counting Book Ever” is not a good counting book. “The first 40 pages are devoted to the numbers 1 to 20,” he says. “Even if you just count up to each number once and turn the page, by the time you get to the number 10, you’ve really counted to 55! Getting to 20 roughly quadruples the number we’ve effectively counted to — in general, it’s a quadratic growth function. When he’s older, I’ll explain that we didn’t always have time to count to 1,050.”
Or take “Curious George” (also conveniently located in the behind-the-bookshelf pile). I’m an animal lover, but I deeply dislike monkeys. They’re too close to humans for comfort, they’re not cute and they throw poop. If I don’t find that conduct adorable in my own flesh and blood, I certainly won’t find it adorable in a creepy subhuman. Now, I’ve heard George doesn’t, in fact, throw his poop in the books, but the stories are too dull and insipid to for me to determine that on my own.
Finally, I’m compelled to hide “The Bed Book” by Sylvia Plath. Yeah, yeah, she’s a marvel of feminist literature, but pulling out this bedtime book means reading at a volume loud enough to drown out my brain hissing: “Sylvia Plath killed herself. Sylvia Plath killed herself. While her children were sleeping, Sylvia Plath killed herself BY GOING TO SLEEP FOREVER!”
Admitting a dislike of any aspect of reading feels like a crime against nature, humanity and the sweet sanctity of a pure and saintly motherhood, so it was a relief when a fellow mother announced, “I hate the Richard Scarry books.” Yet another friend admitted she slides “Goodnight Moon” behind other books in the bookshelf, adding, “I won’t even retrieve it as a reference to write this e-mail because I dislike it so.”
The author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” Jim Trelease, absolves my hiding-books guilt by instructing: “Don’t read stories that you don’t enjoy yourself. Your dislike will show in the reading, and that defeats your purpose,” so I have made my peace with my vetoes. But I’m really not O.K. with my generalized read-aloud fatigue. I really do like the closeness reading aloud to my son brings. I love the feel of his slight and growing body snuggled up against mine. And when he pulls my arm around him and drapes it across his chest in order to squirm even closer to me, I don’t want to ever get off the couch. Except that I do.
My standby tricks to get through books quickly – skipping pages, reading only the first sentences or (horror of horrors) summarizing – are on their last legs. My son has started to memorize the content and can now bust me. I’ve had to find other workarounds to get in the requisite 20 minutes while staving off read-aloud fatigue.
My son takes greater interest in unread library books than he does in his unread books at home. Quite a few books at home remain uncracked because he frankly refuses to believe that the experience will be as good as reading “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go” for the nth time, but he’ll go for the library books.
New books help, but reading the book that I’m reading is even better. One day, my son got interested in the book in my hands and asked me to read it to him. Since it was a Noel Streatfeild and not “Gone Girl,” I was happy to oblige in this killing-of-two-birds-with-one-stone experiment. Amazingly, even though there were no illustrations, he clearly enjoyed the experience and even called out words he recognized, solemnly punctuated with, “Yes, I know that.” But until he’s older, read-aloud chapter books that I like won’t take the place rightly filled by “Rainbow Fish.”
Finally, I got to the point with my read-aloud fatigue that I scoured the Web for free, downloadable MP3s of stories. That way, someone else can tell him stories for 20 minutes. But, oy, the guilt that came with that workaround! It bummed me out that I, a writer who loves reading, am so turned off by reading aloud that I’m leaving it to electronics.
So I still read aloud, and while I do, I constantly remind myself that this is all going to go away. The reading, the exhaustion, the irritation, the closeness, the cuddling – it will all be over in a few short years. When he’s a teenager (even sooner, probably), I will get my reprieve. And the bittersweet irony is I won’t want that reprieve anymore. I will long for these days where the act of speaking words written on a page tires me out at sundown. I will crave that sweet exhaustion because I will prize the closeness even more when it’s gone.
Knowing that doesn’t really make me enjoy the process, but it does get me to sit down. Miraculously, I haven’t managed to kill his love of reading with my thinly veiled fatigue for the live performances. So I’ll read the book I’m reading aloud when he asks. We’ll get fresh books from the library to explore together. And when he pulls out one of his hidden books for me to read, I’ll ungrit my teeth and suck down some coffee. Then I’ll absorb his warmth settling into me and revel in the irresistible hard weight of his head settling into the small of my shoulder, and I’ll read it.
I know, I’m a horrible person. I’ll read tonight, I promise. But meanwhile, what books do you hide from your kids?
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, a San Francisco Bay Area food writer and editor, is the author of the new book “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate.”