I mentioned last December that I was reading A Christmas Carol to our six-year-old at bedtime. Until then, we’d been reading children’s books. I could knock off a children’s book in under five minutes, kiss him, tuck him in, and be back downstairs without missing too much action from whatever sporting event I was watching.
It was great for me as a sports fan, and it kept up the routine of a bedtime story, but there wasn’t much else to it. Meanwhile, the boy was progressing as a reader in his own right, but he viewed reading as a chore.
As I read him the original version of A Christmas Carol, I noticed he paid more attention, rather than just counting it as time spent with Daddy, and more importantly, a precious delay in bedtime.
Maybe he needed something more engaging than the average children’s book when not doing the hard work of reading himself. Maybe he didn’t enjoy reading because he’d never been hooked on the idea of Story. He’d never been bitten by the bug that makes a person need to know what happens next.
After Christmas, instead of going back to children’s books, we moved on to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As with Dickens, we stayed away from watered-down versions. We went full-strength, with all its violence and villainy. If you think this is too much ugliness for an innocent first-grader, just listen to a few of them have a conversation or look at what they’re watching on TV.
Admittedly, the lessons of Grimm’s are sometimes questionable. In the story about the shoemaker’s elves, the elves do wonderful favors for the shoemaker, right up until the shoemaker shows his gratitude by leaving them presents. His presents motivate the elves to abandon him, leaving the impression he would have been better off as an ingrate.
But these iffy morals lead to questions. They let us talk about the story, which the children’s books seldom did. They make us think.
I bought a kids’ version of Grimm’s for him to read to me. For a while, reading it was something he wanted to be rewarded for. The other day, he told me he’d read ahead, on his own – something he’s never done before. He’s started reading to me at bedtime.
Maybe he’s just naturally maturing, or maybe he’s discovering the magic of Story; maybe both.
I’m saving Hans Christian Andersen for when we’re done with Grimm’s. I want him to be a practiced listener when we get to Andersen. While many of the lessons of Grimm’s boil down to “Don’t be stupid” or “Watch your back,” Andersen’s morals are often less ambiguous, while at the same time, more complex. There are tales of self-sacrifice, which is not only a good thing to hear once in a while, it usually makes for an interesting story.
Hans Christian Andersen resides in my personal Pantheon of Storytellers. I’m not sure how comfortable he is there, wedged between Twain and Thurber, but that’s his problem. I’m hoping he can foster a love of Story in my son, and maybe even get him to like reading a little. You’ve got to admire anybody who’s still giving out gifts 140 years after his death.