One of the dependable joys of being a parent is reading to your child. Children love being read to; we can feel virtuous, knowing we’re doing a good thing for our kids; and great children’s books make terrific reading. Sure, seeing your two-year-old’s rapt face makes even Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon fun to read. But what a pleasure when our kids get older and we get to the books we recall from our own childhood. How fabulous to read Charlotte’s Web or The Chronicles of Narnia with adult eyes.
Of course, besides Harry Potter, there’s been plenty written since we were kids. And if we don’t stop reading to our children when they begin to read for themselves, we can discover some new classics in the making.
My then-nine-year-old came across Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux soon after it was published in 2003, before it won the Newbery Medal for that year. We both loved Despereaux the mouse, who is, as his name suggests, in one desperate situation after another. And while the hero is a mouse, and a princess and some rats also figure in the story, the fascinating psychological layers and poetic, pared language kept me engrossed, too.
Desperaux led us to DiCamillo’s other books. Her first, Because of Winn-Dixie, features human characters and a dog in realistic yet magical situations — not just kiddie stuff here. There are a young girl and her father still trying to regain their balance years after the mother leaves; a ragtag group of characters struggling with poverty, alcoholism, and loneliness; and — though the book is set in modern-day Florida — faint echoes of the Civil War.
We also read DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising, which is peopled with believable characters and a very credible tiger. DiCamillo writes of the terrors of childhood — cruel bullies, the death of a mother — without sensationalism. She also paints unsentimental pictures of the sweetness of parent-child interactions and true friends. She respects young people, writing of her hero, Rob, “He must, he realized, know somewhere, deep inside him, more things than he had ever dreamed of.”
DiCamillo’s newest, Mercy Watson to the Rescue, unlike her first three books, is aimed at younger children, the just-beginning-to-read set. Its hero is a lovable pig who, like children, causes havoc, but she also saves the day.
DiCamillo first published in 2000, and so none of us who are parents now were raised on her books. But it’s a pretty safe bet that someday our kids will be reading her books to their kids.
Kate DiCamillo is at Nicola’s Books on Friday, October 28.
[Review published October 2005]