“It’s from Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim,” my mother reports my nephew Daniel saying one Christmas. “It’s a book!”
Mom hastened to add, “And he was clearly delighted. I think I saw him reading it before the evening was over.”
Jim and I have made it a practice to give books to our nieces and nephews since just about the start of our relationship. Some of the babies we started out giving board books to are now in high school and college. We didn’t start this out from any desire to be book pushers. Both of us are avid and enthusiastic readers. Jim credits a book given to him by his maternal grandmother for leading to his desire to become an archeologist. He was nine at the time. He still has the book.
Some of my oldest possessions are books given to me. In other cases, the original book has somehow vanished, but I’ve replaced the title. Or one gift book (for example Mary Poppins in the Park) led to my reading (and now owning) the entire series.
We decided that since we loved books, we’d share the love with the newest people in our lives. This weekend we went out and completed this year’s selection. Since many of the gift recipients are old enough to read this, I’ll going to be coy about naming titles, lest I ruin a surprise.
But I can share some cool stories about what has come from our giving books. Any of you remember Richard Scary? His books were short on text but big on words. No, that isn’t a contradiction. My youngest sister is eight years younger than I am. I clearly remember our mutual delight in going through the pages, looking for favorite characters (like Huckle the Cat or Lowly Worm). The cool thing was that just about everything on the page would be labeled: “Truck” or “apple” or “picklemobile.” Yes. Picklemobile. You read that right.
So when my sisters started producing kids, I figured that a book that had held the attention of a four year-old and a twelve year-old was a very good book indeed, and I hunted out copies of some of Richard Scary’s works.
And one day sister Ann phones and says, “Thank you, thank you for being the wonderful aunt who gives my son books!”
I shook my head in surprise, but I was grinning as I replied, “Okay. I’m glad. Any reason for this call?”
Ann continued, “Well, Christopher and I were playing with his playdough, making things for the kitchen. I’d made some coiled sweet rolls. Christopher asked if he could have one. He then took it and said, ‘Look, Mama. If I unroll this, I have a long French baguette.’ I admit, my first reaction was, ‘Where did my five year-old learn a word like “baguette?” Christopher looked at me patiently and said, ‘Remember, Mama: “Able Baker Charlie makes long French baguettes.”’ That’s from the Richard Scary book you gave him for Christmas. So thank you for being the aunt who gives my kid books.”
I admit, I was pretty jazzed. Christopher is fourteen now. For his birthday, I gave him the first of Brandon Mull’s “Beyonder” novels, which he stayed up past bedtime to finish. He’s getting book three as part of his Christmas present. Yes. Three. Not two. He’s already reading two now!
My siblings are great about letting me know if a book is a “hit.” Sister Susan shared the tale of how her youngest, Tim, had fun advancing a class discussion about rocks when he was about ten – and how the next day he insisted on bringing into school the children’s geology books we’d given him earlier that year. My brother was interested to find out that his daughter’s enthusiasm for hot buttered toast came from the favorite meal of a character in a series of books we’d given her.
Sometimes, now that they’re getting older, the kids tell us themselves. We were deeply touched when nephew Brian added a line to the thank you note he wrote us after Jim sent him a check for his high school graduation: “Thank you for all the great books you’ve given me over the years.”
In fact, books are a great way to connect with the kids in your life. Jim and I live a long way from those kids. Most of my biological family lives “back East.” Jim’s family is currently residing in Texas which, despite sharing a border with New Mexico, is a long way away. But when we see the kids, we have something to talk about other than the cliqued, “How’s school?” “What are your hobbies?”
And don’t fool yourself, kids can have very thoughtful comments about books. One of the best critiques of The Hunger Games I ever heard was from my (then ten year-old) niece Rebecca. I asked her if she wasn’t bothered by a book where kids were killing other kids. She commented that it really wasn’t all that scary. When I read the book, I had to agree. I’d expected to be disturbed, but I found the book provided an incredibly sanitized depiction of genocide. More attention was paid to costumes than to death and dying.
So, this year, once again, we’re giving books to the nieces and nephews. Some are getting fiction, some non-fiction. Especially with novels, we try to make sure we’re at least familiar with the book in question. After all, how can you have a good book chat, if you haven’t read the book?