Friday, December 14, 2007

Reading the Little House books to my son

First, a confession. When my husband and I found out in the summer of 1999 we were having a boy, one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that he wasn't going to attend my alma mater and that he probably wasn't going to love dolls houses or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

I was introduced to the Little House books in second grade, when my teacher read them aloud to us. The next year we moved overseas, and it was living in the Makati suburbs of Manila where I read (and reread, and reread) the rest of the series. My favorite was The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family is snowbound during a tough North Dakota winter, twisting straw into bundles to burn in the stove and grinding wheat in the coffee grinder to make bread. Books in which snow features heavily were something of a fetish for me in a tropical childhood that meant trying out new snorkel and fins in December.

Because Budza is now reading chapter books, and because he'd just finished a book report on one of the Magic Tree House books set on the prairie, I decided to try one of the Little House books on him, just to see if he liked it. I thought about starting with Farmer Boy, but decided to begin at the beginning with Book One.

I have to say, I had forgotten how early in the book the description of pig butchering falls. I kept shooting Budza sideways looks to see how this was going over, and his look was hard to read. It was an odd sensation, to read and feel myself falling under the old familiar spell of the words and the marvelous Garth Williams illustrations, at the same time all a-prickle with curiosity about whether he liked it. Was going to humor me this once and then ask for something else tomorrow night? Or would be love these books, too?

When we came to a stopping point, I asked "Did you like that?" and he nodded his head vigorously. It turned out he did want a different book the next night, but then turned back to it, fascinated, as I was, by the way of life in the middle of nowhere in the 1870s, and trying to imagine a Christmas of new mittens and peppermint candy, woods full of panthers and bears, and having for toys a corncob doll and a Nerf ball made of the pig's bladder. Budza loves the other Wheres and other Whens of the Magic Tree House books, but they're necessarily short on this kind of detail. For me, there is enough story and heart in these books to withstand the latest attempt to turn them into an American Girl brand.

For now, we're still reading. I have a feeling it's a window of opportunity that might soon close. Will Budza grow into the kind of reader who won't want to read books about girls? I hope not before I have the chance to take him to The Island of the Blue Dolphins.


  1. I went behind the sofa when I picked up my daughter's "Long Winter" and started weeping over the last page. So many things you miss the meaning of when you are 7 or 9 and living in a place like Falls Church.

    I am about to give "The Princess & the Goblin" to a newborn baby boy, hoping that two educated parents will enable him to appreciate a book "about a girl."

  2. I was out walking the other day and the scene where Laura and Pa are walking into town so she can work making buttonholes floated into my head. I think it was that I had a disposable cup in my hand, and I thought about them dipping water from a barrel with a common ladle, and then the whole scene came back to me. And when she is taking her teaching exam and diagramming the sentence about a hawk wheeling in the sky. I think of that every time I see a hawk in flight.