Recognizing ourselves in the stories that we read

Guest post by Amy Watkins
jigsaw

At bedtime, I read my daughter Alice a story. This has been our nightly ritual since before she was born, but now, after we read together, she reads on her own. She’s always loved stories, but more and more she’s caught up in words. Almost nightly now she pops out to read her dad and me a short passage: beautiful descriptions, scenes that seem especially funny or apt to her.

Right now she’s reading Philippa Fisher and the Dream-Maker’s Daughter. It’s a silly book in a lot of ways, but she likes the main characters, Philippa Fisher and her spunky friend, a fairy named Daisy. She also likes the descriptions of Philippa’s funny, hippie-dippy, vegan parents. She popped out one night to laugh and read, “Well, I always had Mom and Dad, I reminded myself. They might be the ditziest dingbats on the planet, but at least they hadn’t deserted me.”

“Does that remind you of your parents?” I asked.

She laughed again. “You guys aren’t dingbats,” she said, “but you are a little wacky.”

A few nights later, she bursts out of her room with such intensity that, for a minute, I think something’s wrong. “Listen to this,” she says. “Her family is just like our family! It’s hilarious. They’re just like us!” She reads:

“Just as well I hadn’t said anything, then. Heaven. Normal stuff! The kind of ‘up there’ people were officially allowed to believe in! Except Mom and Dad had never been big on things like heaven, so I’d never really believed in it, either.”

Her excitement is palpable. She’s had a revelation. She has seen herself mirrored in this story, put into words and reflected back to herself. Here is another imaginative only child of wacky, atheist, vegetarian, artist parents! Here is proof that she isn’t alone.

One of the beautiful things reading gives us, of course, is empathy. Reading lets us imagine what it’s like to be someone else, to see the world through different eyes. But it also comforts us by showing us ourselves, by reminding us that others have been where we are, have felt what we feel. It helps us understand our selves.

I remember feeling that sense of self-recognition intensely when I read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt as an adolescent and when I read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth in college. I saw myself more clearly when I read those books, and that was comforting to me. I think it helped me to be a little kinder to myself.

Comments on Recognizing ourselves in the stories that we read

  1. This feature really shows why it’s important to introduce various narratives to our kids — because sometimes we don’t know what the narratives are that they are creating for themselves. Giving them a variety of narratives to read and explore gives them a diverse selection of things to be able to relate to. Had I read Ash by Melinda Lo (a queer re-telling of the Cinderella myth) when I was a teen, I would have understood SO much more about myself and the “alternative” feelings I was having at the time. This feature was a great reminder to give my son a lot of options in his reading so that he can experience both diversity and connection. Thank you!

    • I agree. You also never know what character is going to resonate with your child (or yourself, for that matter) until you meet them. I can think of a lot of characters and authors who are superficially quite different from me with whom I identify on a deep level.

      This is a good reason to let the kid choose what she reads too. I would never have picked this particular book for her, but it’s important to her in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. This open choice policy we have is also leading her to read a lot of books about talking cats, but what’re you gonna do? :b

  2. This is so insightful and so true, illustrating the power of stories. Some of the books I read as a kid still have such a profound effect on me. I hope my son feels the same in 30 years and I can’t wait to share some of my most treasured stories with him.

  3. I have to admit that when I have kids, I want to try to read to them as much as humanly possible. I have such fond memories of my mother reading aloud to us. She kept doing so until I was about 6 or so (when I could read actually interesting books by myself). My older siblings were 11 and 13 at that point but still enjoyed it.

    Reading was the main entertainment in our family and certain books really shaped how I see the world today. Reading also really helped me connect with my mom as we tend to like the same types of books (yay for fantasy!)

    And certainly give your kid free range of the library, but don’t be nervous about suggesting books! Some of the best books I read came from my mother’s suggestions, although that’s likely because we’re very similar.

  4. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood are of my dad reading to me. I’ve always been a big reader and he used to read books to when I was 5 that most 5-year-olds wouldn’t read otherwise. He read me a King Arthur book when I was little and to this day I eat up anything King Arthur related. And we listened to Dean Koontz’s Dragon Tears together on tape whenever we were in the car together when I was 7 or 8 and to this day it’s one of my favorite books. He turned me onto Stephen King when I was 12 and made sure the first King book I read was The Eyes of the Dragon. And that sparked a life-long obsession with Mr. King. My mom and I used to read books out loud together when I was in middle school, and now we both read the Stephanie Plum books and talk about them all the time. Reading and books are a big part of my life, and it’s because of my parents. It’s shaped me, it’s opened me to new ideas and possibilities. I can’t imagine a life without books, and for that I am thankful.

  5. Wonderful post! After many years of bedtime stories and snuggles, my boys (now 8 and 10) started to turn up their noses to books in search of the overly stimulating video games and nerf guns. I was sad, but I wasn’t to be beaten. I rallied my boys, creating our own mom and son book club (they wouldn’t be caught dead going to the one at the library). At first there was a lot of hemming and hawing, but just a few minutes ago my son burst into the room, so excited that he had finished the book and he couldn’t wait to tell me what he thought of the ending. Smiles. 🙂

  6. I was the kid that got in trouble in school, reading my own books because I had finished the assigned books weeks ahead of schedule. I also got caught reading under the covers with a flashlight more times than I could count.

    I’ve already told the hubby that our nursery is going to be Dr. Seuss themed. Our future kid will be indoctrinated. Books are good books are good books are good.

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