Last fall, Jessica stopped being very interested in reading. Although she’s a slow reader and behind her grade level, this was the first time her reading had started to seem like a struggle to her, and the first time her learning difficulties were winning.
The problem, like most problems, was multifaceted. But mostly she just wasn’t interested enough in what she was reading to want to go through the struggle of decoding it. Of the types of books she likes (Disney princesses, anyone?) the plotlines get stale, and they are often meant for younger children, so they don’t hold her attention or help her get better at reading. She can read chapter books, but so often the storylines are ludicrous or the characters puerile; there is little to engage her. Partly this has to do with life experience; the concerns of ordinary children are so remote to her that she can’t even comprehend them. Jess is a child ruled by logic, not emotion.
I sometimes took turns with her, reading aloud one page while she read the next, to encourage her, and I could see why she objected to the books and the task. It was just day after day of plodding effort. I wasn’t interested in how any of these stories turned out. Why would she be?
I wanted her to see what story is. I wanted her to know the worlds a good book could introduce her to. Mostly I wanted her to see that reading can engage your heart and mind in a way that watching Hannah Montana never will.
I scoured the bookshelves at the library and at the bookstore. How could I unlock the magic for her? And then I remembered Harry Potter.
I’d read all of the books in the series myself, and used to shake my fist at J.K. Rowling because her books always came out the same week that mine did. I had enjoyed the series, despite recognizing certain shortcomings in the prose and the plots. But I thought that Jessica might be able to read the first Harry Potter, and it would maybe be enough like princesses to hold her attention.
So I bought the book and showed it to her, and she looked at it doubtfully; it’s a pretty big book to a child who struggles with reading and I immediately realized my mistake. So I said, “Well, why don’t I read it to you, then.”
And she nodded and sat next to me on the sofa, and she listened, and she said, “Harry Potter is the boy who lived.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I am the girl who lived,” she said happily. “Even though you were scared I wouldn’t.”
It took me a minute to answer, and finally I was able to tell her that yes, she was the girl who lived.
“Harry Potter and I are twins,” she said.
“Indeed you are,” I agreed, and she listened for another hour, stopping and asking questions, and I told her the answers, or asked her what she thought, and a pleasant evening passed. The next night she said she’d like to read some more Harry Potter, so we got to the part about the letters from Hogwarts, and she laughed at the idea of magical letters coming down the chimney, and had me read that part again. She could picture each scene clearly in her mind, and she made me read for a lot longer that night.
I enjoyed the experience, and I remembered from back in the days when I studied literature that a long time ago, reading was a public event, not a private one; that people read to each other, and there was no loneliness in it. Although I have always been a person who loves to read, alone, without people near, reading to Jessica made me appreciate how pleasant it must have been to be in court, listening to some educated lady read aloud from Chaucer’s next tale.
And so the week passed, and one night, a few hours after I had tucked her in bed, I noticed that Jessica was still awake.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“I can’t sleep.”
This is unusual for Jess, who is usually out like a light the minute her head hits the pillow. So I was concerned.
“What’s going on? Are you worried?”
“No,” she said, very seriously. “I am thinking. I am thinking about Harry Potter.”
This startled me. She had never talked about a character from a book before, and one had certainly never kept her awake at night.
“And what are you thinking about Harry Potter?” I thought perhaps something in the book had scared her.
“I am thinking it would be fun to ride on a broomstick! I would get the Golden Snitch! And I would be friends with Hermione and Ron, too.”
I didn’t know quite what to say because the sentiment was so unexpected. She had never in her life imagined herself in a book. She had never thought about creating an adventure of her own with characters she had read about. “That’s what I love about stories,” I said. “You get to be part of them.”
“Yes,” she said. “Tomorrow we are going to read more Harry Potter.”
And so we did. The first book, and then the second, and then she went into her room and came out with a magic wand and turned me into a toad.
She had never pretended anything in her life before Harry Potter.
We read the third book, which was harder going, and I swore at J.K. Rowling a few more times. Jessica sat, hands clenched, whenever Harry and Ron and Hermione had their disagreements. She could hardly wait to find out how they would solve their problems and she would sigh in relief when they did.
“I knew Harry Potter would find a way,” she told me.
She laughed and laughed over the flying car stealing Harry from his locked bedroom, and avoided walking too near trees for a few days after the Whomping Willow got hold of them. She waited, tense with anticipation, every time Snape cornered Harry and every time Harry got the best of Draco, she gave a sly grin.
When we got to the fifth book, I had to read over one hundred pages in one sitting so she could find out whether Harry would get expelled from Hogwarts or not. She just had to stay up late to find out.
And at the end, she sighed and said, “That was a good book, Mama. That was a lot of good books. Are there other good books like that?”
“Oh, yes,” I told her. “More than you can believe.”
“All right,” she said. “Let’s get started.”
I no longer shake my fist at J. K. Rowling for stealing all of the publicity every year, or for not editing down the length of her tomes. I thank her from the depths of my soul for teaching my daughter about the great gift of books.