When it's time for bedtime stories for Henry and Kate, we usually read two books, one chosen by each child. If you're in the business of reading bedtime stories, you know all too well that for every Cat in the Hat on your child's shelf, there is another title that seems to have been written by a chimpanzee with a typewriter. So some evenings are full of beautiful literature, while others leave you searching for a spoon with which to gouge out your eyes.
Tonight Henry chose The First Thanksgiving, a well-meaning story which conveniently avoided the entire issue of genocide, while Kate brought out a watered-down version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears which ended with the Bears making breakfast for their "guest." We've definitely had worse.
The highlight of the evening, though, was a book that I chose, Bravest of All. Published in 1973 (and sadly no longer in print), this Little Golden Book was one of my favorites as a child, and I've loved sharing it with my own children. The story itself is wonderful, as it centers around an old firefighter name Jonathan who endures the condescension of the younger firemen at his station until he earns their respect in the end. There are vivid pictures of dancing flames, wonderful passages of descriptive language, and a plot that grabs young readers and refuses to release them. Kate was hearing the story for the first time tonight, and she stopped me half way through, breathlessly asking, "Can we read this story again next time?"
But the best part by far was before we started the story and I told them that this book -- this actual book -- had belonged to me when I was a little boy. "Do you mean that Mum (grandma) read this book to you when you were a little boy like me?" asked Henry. Indeed, she did.
As proof, I opened the book to the title page to show them were I had neatly written my name thirty-five years ago. Alison found herself drawn from her homework to examine my five-year-old handwriting and correctly observed that it looked just as if Henry had written it. And then we read the story.
The beautiful thing about literature -- and yes, I consider this book to be literature -- is that it can be something different each time you read it. I vividly remember being thrilled by the drawings of fire trucks and ambulances and frightened by the snakelike flames when I was a boy, but now I'm drawn to the theme of redemption offered by the ending. Each time I read it with my children, I'm surprised by how emotional I become as I turn to the final page, but it's not just about the words I'm reading. It's about the words my mother once read to me, and that my children will one day read to my grandchildren. And as they turn the pages and read the words, I'm certain that memories will come flowing back to them, memories of a night in January when they sat close to their father and listened to him read one of his favorite books.