One day in August, Nicholas and I were walking past a pile of trash set at the curb in front of an apartment building when I noticed a huge anthology of “Peanuts” comics, clean and hardly used, on top of the pile. I immediately grabbed it to take home. Nicholas (age two-and-a-half) was very interested in these adventures of kids and a dog, and although he didn’t get all of the jokes, he generally understood the events. We read from this book on the bus every day for a couple of weeks, returning to certain storylines over and over again at Nick’s request. He soon noticed “Peanuts” in the comics section of my Sunday newspaper and began asking me to read those comics to him as well.
I’m surprised at how infrequently comic strips and comic books are mentioned as tools for teaching children to read. It seems that a lot of people view comics as a dangerous distraction from “real” books–too easy to read or not serious enough. But plenty of children’s picture books are easy to read and have silly or simplistic plots. Nick is learning some things from being read comics that he hadn’t yet learned from being read picture books. Two things he learned in the first week were the pattern in which we read the pages of a book and the way we indicate emphasis in written words. As I read the “Peanuts” book, in which two facing pages show many strips, I was naturally inclined to point at the frame I was reading to help Nicholas look at the right picture. Soon, he began saying excitedly as I opened the book, “Read this one first, and then all these, and then these…” drawing his finger down the left-hand page and then the right. He also noticed that when a character had a wide-open mouth and I read in a somewhat louder voice, the words were larger and darker and followed by exclamation points. He began to look ahead on the page and point out “shouting” coming up. Now he sometimes points at large, exclamation-pointed words in newspaper ads and asks, “Mama, what’s that shouting?”
The topics addressed in comics can be serious, too. Since “Peanuts” was such a hit, I tried a “For Better or for Worse” book. That strip also is about kids and a dog and funny things happening, but it includes many episodes from adult life as well. We came to a sequence in which John’s friend Ted has been left by his wife because he was cheating on her, Ted is acting as if he’s been wronged, John points out that Ted was in fact seeing other women, and Ted says, “But none of them meant anything!”
NICK: What, Mama?
ME: Ted told Irene he loved only her. But when he was alone with other women, he would hug and kiss them and say, “I love only you.” Now he says he didn’t mean it, he didn’t really love them, and he thinks that makes it okay.
NICK: But no!! That’s not nice!!
So I’ve explained adultery to my two-year-old. Was that so difficult or corrupting?
We’re currently reading a “Calvin & Hobbes” book. There are certain strips Nick asks me to read again and again. Some are particularly funny (the series in which Calvin gets hiccups and Hobbes tells him to drink from the far side of a glass gets Nick rolling with laughter every time) but others have ideas that I think he needs to process over and over to get his head around them. Every strip in which Calvin is threatened by Moe the bully has been requested for rereading, although most of them are variations on the same plot: Moe threatens to use his greater strength to hurt Calvin, in order to get what he wants; he succeeds; Calvin’s feelings are hurt; Calvin reminds himself that in other ways he is a superior person. To a small and gentle child whose peer interactions so far have been closely monitored by adults, Moe’s actions are appalling and the fact that nobody makes him stop is disturbing. I was bullied quite a bit as a child and find it painful to think about, but I like the example Calvin sets by caving in so that he can walk away: Having a turn on the swing is not as important as being safe and unhurt; don’t respond to violence with violence. It’s interesting that Nicholas does not ask me to explain why Moe and Calvin interact the way they do. He just wants to read it again and think about it.
This same “read the scary part again” phenomenon has appeared in the other new type of book I’ve been reading to Nicholas: chapter books. Daniel and I did read him some chapter books when he was an infant and just wanted to hear our voices, but when he began actually following the story he had no patience with long books that don’t have a picture on every page. Then, in September, he became intrigued by the picture of the covered wagon on the cover of Little House on the Prairie and asked me to read him that book. He followed the story with such zest that we read it (mostly during our bus commute) in less than two weeks and went on to the next two books about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood. Then we bogged down in The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family has fewer interesting adventures and spends chapter after chapter struggling not to freeze or starve. We managed to finish the book but not until it was overdue at the library. I knew Nick was losing interest because he stopped referring to events in the book in conversation, whereas he’d chattered frequently about the previous books.
Anyway, at the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, the water rises while they’re crossing a creek, causing the wagon to float and the horses to panic. They cross safely but can’t find Jack the dog, who had been swimming on his own, and they have to travel on presuming that Jack has drowned. I had forgotten all about this part of the story, and while reading it I was worrying that it was too frightening for Nicholas. I remembered that Jack is in subsequent books so knew he hadn’t drowned, but we ended the first night’s reading with Jack MIA. I opened the book next day and read just a few sentences before Nick said, “Read when the wagon was floating.” I went back and read that whole section again. He nodded and said, “Read the rest of it,” and I went to the place where we’d left off. It was like this with all the scary incidents in the book: “Read when they thought Jack was a wolf.” “Read when the log fell on Ma.” “Read when everybody got sick.” We had to go back and hear it again and sometimes talk about what happened and what they did to make it all right. One more time was enough for every episode but one: I read him the chapter “Fire in the Chimney” six or seven times.
It’s not that he’s getting a thrill out of being scared. But it’s not too scary for him, either. He needs to think about these scary things and process the ideas: the things that can happen to people, the feelings that go along with them, the quick thinking and bravery that gets them through. He didn’t become worried that these things might happen to us, have nightmares, or otherwise show that he wasn’t ready for this book. In fact, I think he learned a lot from it. I learned some things, too, that I hadn’t picked up when I read the Little House books (some of them at least ten times each!) as a child. They were written before Nick’s grandparents were born, about the childhood of someone older than his great-great-grandparents, yet her experiences are vivid and real to him.
It is wonderful being able to share some of my favorite books with my child. We already had that with picture books, but my appreciation of any book dims when I read the whole thing every night for two months! Just before discovering “Peanuts”, Nick went through a brief phase of wanting to bring a picture book for me to read to him on the bus. We’d read the whole thing while waiting at the bus stop, and then he’d want me to read it again while riding the bus, so by the time we were riding our second bus home I might be reading the same book for the eighth time that day and the fourth time in an hour…and our fellow passengers were frowning at me, thinking, “What a terrible mother, reading in that bored voice and rolling her eyes at that sweet little book!” But I wasn’t willing to lug around eight books just to get some variety! Cartoon and chapter books give me new stuff to read every day without being too heavy. I’m looking forward to picking up Nicholas today so I can find out how Calvin defeats the snow goons!