Footnotes: Thoughts from the margins of a mom’s life

As an avid lifelong reader, I’ve been eager to pass down my favorite books to my children. My son, who will turn six in a few months, has been enthusiastically listening to me read Charlotte’s WebBeezus and Ramona and even Harriet the Spy. We read our nightly chapter lying on my bed beneath the glow of a small lamp. William makes a fort out of pillows beside me and emerges when it’s time to look at a picture. Sharing my favorite books with him, I find that I now see them in an entirely new way – through his eyes.

In past readings of Charlotte’s Web, I never paid much attention to Fern’s brother, Avery, who is not what you’d call a main character. But William immediately took to Avery, nicknaming him “Mr. Silly.” Every time “Mr. Silly” came into a scene, William would pop out of his pillow fort, all smiles. In one of the culminating scenes in the book, Avery dances around at the county fair. Hearing this, William hopped up on the bed and began dancing. “Go Mr. Silly!” he shouted.

Occasionally totally innocuous lines of dialogue capture his attention. A few days ago, in Beezus and Ramona, the older sister tells Ramona to go outside or else “I’ll tickle you!” Now this phrase is frequently repeated to his sister. When Harriet of Harriet the Spy announces to her parents, “I’ve changed my mind!” after deciding that she would take dance lessons, William now shouts exuberantly “I’ve CHANGED my MIND!” Although it’s not always clear what he’s changed his mind about.

The unpredictability of William’s responses is refreshing. And just as I couldn’t anticipate the things he’d take away from these stories, so I am also sharing thoughts about them that never occurred to me before. “It was a bad idea for Harriet to write mean things in her notebook,” I said a few weeks ago. “We need to be kind to friends.” This kind of casual moralizing, so quick to my tongue, is likely irritating to my son (it certainly would have annoyed me as a kid), but I can’t help myself. Suddenly the stories seem useful in a new way, in what they can tell us about how to be good in the world, even if my audience is a wild, pillow-forted, tickly “Mr. Silly.”

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