Love and Books by Donalyn Miller
Yesterday, Don, Sarah, and I drove three hours to Cedar Park (near Austin) for Don’s sister and brother-in-law’s 40th wedding anniversary celebration. The trip got off to a rocky start. Sarah was grouchy and argued with me about her outfit of blue jeans, Gatsby t-shirt, and Converse, which I deemed inappropriate for the occasion. Waiting for her to change, I grew anxious about leaving later than we planned. Don was annoyed with both of us for bickering. Snappish and silent, we settled into our habitual stations in the car. Prone to motion sickness and nervous when other people drive, I took the driver’s seat. Sarah sprawled across the back seat and stared out the window. Don took the navigator’s seat and scrolled through his playlists for music we might like, but the music was too loud for the mood in the car, and he shut it off.
Texas is beautiful in the springtime, but you can only look at cows, rolling fields, and blue skies for so long. Although I left my coffee mug on the kitchen counter, I didn’t forget to bring a book. Through decades of road trips with bored kids, books have saved us more than once. As Don says, “You never know when a reading emergency might befall you.” Not in the mood for our usual tangential conversations about cabbages, kings, and the next episode of Steven Universe, I asked Don if he wanted to read aloud the book I brought, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy. I had no expectations for Sarah’s participation—she could listen or not. She’s eighteen and I cannot compel her to listen to a read aloud any more than I can force her to wear a skirt.
Julie Murphy has a gift for crafting characters that readers connect with and after reading a few pages, Don and I were drawn into the story. Living in the South, we know Ramona and her family. We have neighbors and friends who survived Hurricane Katrina, but still haven’t recovered from losing everything they once called home. As Don kept reading, we recognized more parallels to our lives. Ramona and her older sister, Hattie, remind us of our two girls. Hattie, Ramona’s older sister, has a lot in common with Celeste, our older daughter. Both Hattie and Celeste are outgoing, sweet, and effortlessly beautiful, with a teenage predilection for reckless behavior and unworthy boyfriends (which Celeste has thankfully outgrown).
Sarah is like Ramona in many ways—both high school seniors, confident in themselves and intolerant of people who don’t appreciate them, more at ease with a few close friends than crowds, both wondering what’s next in their lives. Sarah has dyed her hair a kaleidoscope of colors— peacock blue like Ramona’s, but also green, red, black, and a short stint with leopard spots. Last New Year’s Eve, Sarah shaved her hair to the scalp—protesting the bullying of a classmate with alopecia and too many rude remarks from other kids about Sarah’s gender role non-conforming personal style. I imagine Ramona would approve. I imagine Sarah wouldn’t care whether she approved or not.
After reading two chapters, Don stopped for a sip of water. Speaking for the first time in several miles, Sarah said, “I can read for awhile if you want, Dad.” Ah, she was listening. Good. When Don passed Ramona Blue over the back seat, my eyes welled with tears. Such a small gesture, but it carried so much weight. We are in the passing-over-the-seat stage of parenting, the slow—then too fast—progression of moving responsibilities and rituals from our hands to hers. She’s our youngest. She’s leaving home for college in the fall. Don and I are painfully aware that we have more lasts than firsts with Sarah these days. I can’t help wondering if this will be our last road trip read aloud before she goes away.
Sarah read for a long time. We laughed and discussed Ramona’s troubles, predicting how aspects would unfold and making connections to the people we knew in our lives. On the way home, Sarah and Don took turns reading until the car was so dark they couldn’t see the pages. Don turned on the map light and kept reading until we pulled into our driveway. We plan to finish Ramona Blue tonight, and it will become part of our shared history. One more memory tethered by a book.
Looking back over Sarah’s childhood, I see so many memories wrapped around books we read together. Sarah earned her first library fine before she was old enough to read. Curious about the layers in a board book edition of Have You Seen My Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri, Sarah peeled a page apart. After paying for the damaged book, the Euless Public Library clerk seemed shocked I wanted to keep it. I taped it together with packing tape and we read it for years. I remember Don hiding Chicka Chicka Boom Boom on top of the refrigerator, so he wouldn’t have to read it for the twelfth time that day. We can still chant it word-for-word. I read The Kissing Hand every night for two weeks before Sarah’s first day of kindergarten. We kissed her hand before the first day of school for many years after. Sarah remembers Don reading made-up sentences about alien-landings during bedtime readings of The Mouse and the Motorcycle—his silly way of determining whether she had fallen asleep or not. All four of us read Harry Potter together, a nightly ritual that ended with the final book the year Celeste was a high school junior.
As Sarah grew older, our book sharing behaviors changed from reading aloud books together to passing books between us. When she turned thirteen or fourteen, we gifted her with open access to our personal bookshelves. We knew that if she was reading and appreciating books published for adults in her English classes, she was mature enough to read anything she wanted. Our only expectation? Come and talk to us about what you are reading. She burned through our graphic novel collection and added to her own—devouring runs of Locke and Key, Saga, Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead, the complete Maus, The Watchmen, and many more. She read Stephen King’s Misery and 11/22/63. We passed around Grasshopper Jungle and listened to Wil Wheaton’s audio narration of Ready, Player One. We discussed The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, and Brave New World when Sarah read them—each book providing talking points for ongoing conversations about prejudice, free will, integrity, morality, and ethics.
A young woman now, Don and I hope that we have given Sarah what she needed from us—love, safety, a sense of social awareness and personal responsibility, respect for herself and other people. Ill-equipped for the Herculean task of raising children—like all parents on any given day—we couldn’t have done it without books. Every book we checked out from the library, bought from the book order, read aloud, and passed into her hands filled in all of the things we needed to tell Sarah about the world, but didn’t have the capacity or words to say. She’s a marvel, and we will take credit when we deserve it, but we didn’t do it alone. It takes a mountain of books to raise a capable, caring, confident child. Sarah has grown into her own unique person because of Laurie Halse Anderson, Jenni Holm, Lois Lowry, Christopher Paul Curtis, Faith Erin Hicks, Raina Telgemeier, Andrew Smith, George Orwell, Julie Murphy, and so many others who led her to a life of reading, engaged her with the world, and influenced the amazing person she’s become.
Years from now, Sarah may have children of her own, and we know she will read with them like we have always read with her. She will take her children to the library and raise them with books. Love and books–a great legacy to pass from one generation to the next.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.