The forest and the trees
Up until recently, my son’s interest in books has been to gnaw at the edges until they dissolve.
As a passionate reader (and writer, and English major . . .), this broke my heart a little. OK: a lot. I once had these visions of rocking a child to sleep with an Eric Carle book in hand, but the reality of Oliver — and his active, active mind — has been quite different.
From the time he could scoot away and get into mischief, that’s been his daily goal. And he’s really good at it. Not subtle, though; his little feet are less a pitter-patter, more giganotosaurus clomping toward the allyou-can-eat dinosaur buffet. We should be glad for that, I guess, considering he can’t exactly sneak anywhere. Guess those skills kick in around age 16?
“Book” was one of Oliver’s first words, but I think it was just in the context of snacking. And thinking back on it, the book he loved the most — the one we had to physically hide, because he wouldn’t stop biting at the corner of it — was a John Deere picture book featuring tractors: a word we now hear approximately 1,000 times a day.
Despite Ollie’s interest in literally anything else, I’ve persisted in my attempt to turn my firstborn into a bona fide bookworm. Shelves in his room are lined with tales of “Curious George,” “Paddington Bear” and one very “Hungry Caterpillar” — many of them special baby shower gifts from family and friends.
Downstairs I cleared off two shelves of my own bookcase for children’s stories: an act of love if ever there was one. Dozens are stacked there, waiting to become beloved by the Johnson kids. Hadley is off the hook for the moment, given she’s preoccupied with the recent discovery of her hands and feet, but 2-year-old Ollie isn’t.
I know that shoving something down your kids’ throats is a good way to make them rebel, but is that true for adorable pop-up books? I’ll admit that I gave up for a while, too tired during my second pregnancy to force my wild man to sit when he didn’t want to, but I feel excited — obligated, even — to try again.
I saw my opening a few months ago. Ollie was newly obsessed with “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss’ classic environmental tale, and we’d watched the animated movie at least a dozen times. It’s one of the first films he really connected with and requested (“Lull-ax! Lull-ax!”) and, you know, it was a cute movie; I couldn’t deny him that.
Seeing some crossover possibilities, I waited until he was totally into all things “Lorax” before I grabbed a book his grandma gave us when he was born — one of many sweet story-and-stuffed-animal pairs sold at our favorite department store.
Not only did we have Dr. Seuss’ hardcover, but we also had a Lorax doll: fluffy and yellow and positively delightful to Ollie, who began carrying him around ever ywhere.
The book version also kept us company. He loved it so much that I removed the dust jacket so he’d have “The Lorax” — or “Trees,” per Ollie — to keep in the car. I tried reading it aloud to him many times, but he would bypass my rhymes and head straight for the colorful pages with truffula trees.
This went on for a while. The book had to go everywhere with us, even to bed — but his attention eventually returned to tractors, and “The Lorax” eventually fell into the dusty underbelly of his bed.
We were cleaning in his room on Saturday when Ollie, crouched down, began excitedly pointing to something. “Trees! It’s trees,” he repeated, and I pushed aside the mummified cookie crumbs and LEGO people and stray socks to eventually put my fingers on “The Lorax” once more.
Despite having not seen the book in weeks (decades, really, in toddler years), he immediately opened to the midway point of the story: where the bright, colorful, whimsical truffula trees first appear. He even let me read a few lines of the story. Then I got cocky. At bedtime that night, Ollie sprawled out on the floor with “The Lorax” open in front of him. My logical my mom brain knew he was stalling, but the hopeful part of me wanted to believe he actually wanted a bedtime story. Finally!
We were sprawled on the floor on our bellies, heads bent together, and I happily turned to the beginning to start with the story of the grickle-grass and bar-ba-loots and rampant destruction of Earth’s precious resources. You know: good lighthearted stuff.
Oliver wasn’t into that, of course. All he wanted to do was admire the trees and turn the pages, searching for the Lorax himself. I had to tamp down my irritation and let him rumple the pages he flipped with a heavy toddler hand. While I do believe books shouldn’t be kept under glass, tears and wrinkles make me itchy.
“Trees” floated in and out of Ollie’s attention over the weekend. Spencer and I spent the majority of the time trying to distract him away from YouTube tractor videos and stay out of the bathroom sink, where he loves to splash water. I managed to get his attention with a search-and-find book (there’s a farm page . . .), but that was short-lived.
Bedtime isn’t the howling match it once was, but it still takes some coaxing to get Ollie upstairs. His bed is lined with stuffed animals and action figures, tiny cars and blankets. There is, of course, his toy tractor piloted by Man, as well as a few small books of animals he once took an interest in but probably hasn’t looked at since.
When I walked up with him Sunday evening, Ollie was oddly accepting of his sleepy fate. I was braced for the meltdown, but it never came. He surprised me by also pulling something from beneath his pillow: “The Lorax.” I hadn’t even seen him put it there.
He flipped a few pages, I gave him a kiss and quietly closed the door. I figured that would be the end of it. But as I tiptoed by his door again, I could hear him softly talking to himself: repeating in gibberish the lines I’d been attempting to read many times. Occasionally he would sing the tune of a silly song I’d been repeating, too.
He’d been listening . . . even when I thought for sure he wasn’t.
Tomorrow? Shakespeare. You can never start too early.