Reading in the Wild by Anne Ursu
A year ago, my little boy learned to read.
He’d been staring at books in his room at night all summer—way past when any respectable mother of a five-year-old would have declared lights out. I thought he was studying the pictures, and I figured any time spent with books was good. I had no idea he was actually reading them until one day he pointed at a road sign and exclaimed, “Bump!”
I loved watching him with books; I’d wanted him to be a reader so badly because I’d had such an intense relationship with books growing up. I was a shy, sensitive little kid, and as I got older, I was more and more bewildered by the vagaries of interpersonal relationships—but I was always at home in the pages of a book. I read everything, all the time—my mom says on Friday afternoons I would disappear into my room with a stack of library books and come out Monday morning with them all read. I’d read by lamplight well into the night and fall asleep on my book. How could I tell him to turn off the light when I never did?
Last year during the school’s read-a-thon I went all reality-show stage-mom, and to my great satisfaction, he won kindergarten and got to stand in front of the whole school and get applauded. A nice change for a boy who, when he gets praise at school, it’s for keeping his hands to himself.
From the time Dash was two, it was obvious he was different, somehow, from the other kids. He just seemed more hyper, more impulsive, more everything. Every time we had a playdate or went to a party, he’d bite someone. When he started preschool the problems got worse, and he just couldn’t function in a classroom. One day I was called to pick him up at Preschool #3 for biting, and when I walked into the principal’s office she was working on her computer saying “Do you know why you bit? Do you know why you bit?” while he writhed on a chair.
Eventually, Dash’s problems were given a name—Aspergers. The tragedy for him is that he adores other kids, but he doesn’t know how to be around them, so he gets anxious and overstimulated and lashes out. He comes home, pupils huge, and sometimes he can’t do anything but run around in circles.
He is a little boy in a big world. His parents split up when he was three—old enough to remember them together, but way too young to understand. His mom can be impatient, tired, busy, sad. Kids are a mystery to him. Everyone around him speaks a language he doesn’t quite understand, and people’s faces move in the most bewildering ways. He tries so hard to figure out how to interact, but the rules are innumerable and indecipherable.
Sometimes, the world itself attacks him with loud noises and bright lights and rushes of motions and too much to look at. It hurts him to see a crying child, a sick animal. He insists that there are no bad guys in the real world, and someday he’ll learn he’s wrong.
This is where my heart breaks. There’s something about the idea of growing up that’s always made me acutely sad, and I’ve never understood where that came from; I was not a kid that wanted to stay a child forever. But I was pathologically sensitive, I couldn’t handle the idea of anything bad happening to anyone, ever, and when you’re a young child you’re allowed to believe that the world is safe and good and nobody ever suffers. I don’t think I could bear realizing that that wasn’t true.
I loved books, desperately, but when I started this essay I realized that I also needed them. While I was hiding out, reading, the books were gently teaching me about the bewildering world, and helping me figure out how to live in it. And they’ll do this for Dash. Books tell us that sometimes kids feel alone, sometimes they feel different, sometimes they are scared, sometimes they are sad. Books put names on big feelings, and then make them familiar and okay. And they tell you you are not alone in feeling them.
My child is a reader. I feed him books and he devours them. He sits up late reading, and I don’t stop him. He’s so peaceful when he’s reading; everything else disappears—there is just the assured comfort of narrative, the feel of the pages, the music of the words. Books are a pocket he tucks himself into. I wanted him to be a reader so we could have something to share, but now I realize how much more there is to it than that. And maybe I can tell him that the world was hard for me, too, and that I was so glad to have books as my friends, and that they will help us both make sense of things, and that we are in this together. For now, we’ll both sit up way too late together with a book and a lamp, ignoring the encroaching darkness.
Anne Ursu grew up on Maud Hart Lovelace, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Betsy Byers, and Madeline L’Engle, and she’s currently reading The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer. Dash is obsessed with Dragonbreath, Bone, Warriors, manga, and Ricky Ricotta, and is currently reading Frankie Pickle. Anne teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and lives in Minneapolis with her son, a lot of books, three cats, and a pile of unopened mail. She is the author of Breadcrumbs (published in 2011) and The Real Boy, which releases today, September 24th.