Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 6, 2023
A few weeks ago my 14-year-old grandson, Ben, started Lane Tech in Chicago. It’s one of the best public high schools in the nation. We’re all very excited for the four-year adventure he has ahead of him.
He described the first week as “10 out of 10,” and unless you’re the guitarist for Spinal Tap, it doesn’t get any better than that.
But it also means the end of our amazing seven-year reading journey.
In July of 2016 I joined Ben and his parents on an Alaskan cruise. The ship left from Seattle and since our first port of call was Juneau, the better part of the first three days was on the ocean, sailing hundreds of miles, skirting Canada.
Open sea isn’t particularly interesting – wow, look at all that water! – and Ben, who was then 7, and I were sitting up in the front cabin, looking out at … not much.
There were some books shelved along the wall behind us and I idly picked one out, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the famed series by J.K. Rowling. We started to read together, or more accurately, I started to read and Ben started to listen.
That’s how it began. I think we were halfway through the book when the weeklong trip was over. Of course we had to finish. Thus began our regular ritual. Ben used to sleep over on Tuesday nights and we’d read before bedtime.
That changed with the pandemic, at which time he began to call from his house and I’d continue to read to him. When he was old enough to have his own cell phone he’d call on FaceTime for our near-nightly sessions.
We weren’t actually looking at each other – all I’d see was the ceiling fan in his bedroom and I’m not sure what he saw of me, since the phone was cradled on my tummy – but when I asked why FaceTime he said the sound quality was better than on a regular phone call. Plus I could show him pictures, especially in a lavishly illustrated book like The Invention of Huge Cabret.
We liked Sorcerer’s Stone but stopped midway through the second novel in the series, Chamber of Secrets, agreeing it wasn’t as much fun. We might’ve taken a break at that point, but within a few months went back and finished Chamber, then made our way through the rest of the series. We decided the first book was our favorite – funny and incredibly imaginative – while the last few were too dark and violent for our delicate tastes.
Then we moved on to the great children’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, then the great adult novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then (at Ben’s request) The Hobbit, which he had already read with his dad. We particularly liked the chapter in which Gollum and Bilbo challenge each other with riddles in a life-and-death contest. Here’s one of Gollum’s riddles: can you guess what it is?
This thing all things devours; Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats mountain down.
The answer is below.*
After two Redwall books, we opted for something a little spicier (seeing as Ben was now 10 or 11): The Hunger Game series. Then we re-read the Harry Potter series as well as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the basis for all modern American literature, according to Hemingway.
As he got older, our selections grew more sophisticated. We went from Redwall, the beloved children’s fantasy series (“The animals of Redwall Abbey are peaceful by nature – yet when they encounter evil, the kind-hearted mice, hares, and otters are brave in the face of battle”) to adolescent classics like Hole by Louis Sachar and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. We even read Steinbeck’s very dark The Pearl and Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
One of our favorites was the Newberry Prize winning novel Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, in which a 13-year-old, not much older than Ben at the time, struggles to stay alive after surviving a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness.
We abandoned some books along the way as too boring or complex: the classic sci-fi adventure Red Mars was one, as was Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, defeated by Twain’s highfalutin language. Disappointingly, Ben vetoed two of my favorites – 11/22/63 by Stephen King and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – after just a chapter or two.
About two years ago we hit our stride with two great short stories: The Diary of Adam and Eve by Twain and Master and Man by Tolstoy (really a novella).
Around that time I suggested we try (with some trepidation: what if he hated it?) The Dream Machine: A Novel of Future Past, my “dys fi” (a term I coined for dystopian fiction), time travel, historical and future lit YA thriller. Happily, he loved it.
From there we made it through Oliver Twist, despite Dickens’ thicket of language (where was Maxwell Perkins when you needed him?); enjoyed The Killer Angels, the classic novel about the Battle of Gettysburg; and went big with For Whom the Bell Tolls, my favorite Hemingway. Of course some expurgation was necessary in the Robert Jordan-and-Maria-in-the sleeping-bag scenes, as both too salacious for a young teen’s ears (especially read by his grandfather) and (let’s face it) too embarrassing by modern standards.
We finished up with two classics of 20th century literature: Animal Farm (again at Ben’s request) and 1984, both by George Orwell. We turned the last page on Winston Smith Friday evening, Aug. 18. Ben was due to start high school the following Monday.
Altogether 52 books and short stories.
The beauty of such a reading program is manifold: an almost nightly connection with your child or grandchild, the opportunity to explain and discuss the basics of good writing – style, plot and character development – as well as puzzle out themes and discuss possible high school essay questions, like: What are the similarities between Animal Farm and 1984? (Answer: more than you’d think.)
Most important, of course, was the opportunity to promote a love of reading.
As Ben said, when asked to opine: “I’m so glad I was able to have this experience. All of the books we read were exceptional pieces of literature and I was incredibly lucky to have a grandfather who was willing to set aside time in his day to read to me. Because of these seven years I have been able to further my knowledge in literature farther than I would ever have been able if I were reading by myself.”
When I describe this reading program to people, they always comment on what a rare privilege it must’ve been, which of course is true. But it doesn’t have to be rare: Anyone can do the same with their kids, grandkids or even their friends’ or neighbors’ kids and grandkids. My best friend’s daughter, who grew up next door, has moved back to Evanston from Texas, and now I’m reading Hans Christian Andersen and Charlotte’s Web to her four-year-old daughter.
It is the greatest gift of all – the joy and comfort of reading – for both of you.
*The answer to Gollum’s riddle is, of course, time. I will miss the time Ben and I spent reading together, and treasure it forever.