COLUMNS

Just Thinking: Reading to grandkids no bother when results arise

MARGO BARTLETT

My daughters have introduced their children to Winnie the Pooh.

You know Pooh, a bear of Very Little Brain, who lives under the name of Saunders? My sister and I found the Pooh stories hilarious when we were growing up, and well into young adulthood, when one of us was sick, the other would settle in with the book and commence to read aloud.

As for my grandchildren's generation, my grandsons took to Pooh as if to the 100 Acre Wood born, while my granddaughter, deep into Ben Hatke's graphic novels about Zita the Space Girl and Mighty Jack, not to mention the Baby-Sitters Club books, was polite but indifferent to Pooh.

The fact that my small daughters were completely different people from the get-to never ceased to amaze me, and here I am, amazed all over again. Apparently I'll never learn.

Luckily for me, I didn't insist that my daughters like the same books I liked. I don't even recall their childhood opinion of Pooh and Piglet, but I remember very well reading the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books to them.

As I child, I loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, whose namesake lived in an upside-down house and who "cured" children of various bad habits in magical ways.

They attached themselves to those stories like ticks (not that I think of my children as external parasites), and I realized only after I started reading them aloud that each chapter was formulaic to the point of making an adult want to scream and fall unconscious.

We have pictures of me reading from a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book. My little girls' faces are rapt, and I look like one from whom all hope has been stripped away.

I mention all this because my three grandchildren have been read to all their lives -- read to as if book reading was a sort of ventilator that kept them going from one day to the next.

I carry around two canvas bags stuffed with books I've chosen for their amusement, but my books are extras, the equivalent of between-meal snacks served to kids who are given three large, wholesome spreads a day.

And to continue the food analogy, the books served by their parents are full of vitamins, minerals, protein and just enough fat and sugar to keep them clamoring for more.

I've begun to notice the effect all this reading has had on my grandchildren. It's hard not to notice when a 4-year-old boy says, "Now I will flee into the woods," or a $10 word comes from a 7-year-old's mouth.

Not infrequently, one of the kids will ask me what a word means -- "larceny," for instance -- and just as often their parents will toss in a definition free of charge and without breaking the narrative's stride.

The rest of the time, the kids pick up meanings through context -- though this isn't 100% reliable, as I realized years ago when my older daughter, then 5 and fond of listening to the music from "Fiddler on the Roof," offered her sister a tiny scrap of construction paper.

"Would you like this little prayer shawl?" she asked sweetly.

To bring this full circle -- though I wouldn't call it a true circle; it's more of a blobby soap bubble made with one of those big wands they didn't make when I was a child, and I could go on and on about the fabulous toys I see all around me that didn't exist when I could have made the most of them without looking silly -- my daughter picked up her younger son from day care the other day.

When she had him snicked into his car seat and was heading home, he pointed out some clouds.

"Yes, I see them," my daughter said. "Do you think it will rain?"

"Well, I don't much care if it rains or thaws, 'cause I've got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws," was my grandson's response.

I don't think he set up this exchange in order to quote "In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole." It's more likely that the word "rain" pressed a button somewhere in his brain.

But you never know with this boy. I certainly don't.

Write to columnist Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.