picture books

Under the bridge

Not my troll, but still cuteMy nine year old son looked alarmed when I told him he had “Troll toes” after his bath tonight. He thought it was a condition of some kind, but I explained that when I was his age, I had a big picture book of fairy tales that I used to read over and over again. Alongside the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff was an illustration of the Troll who lived under the bridge. He had bulging eyes, scaly skin, a few hairs on his bald head, and unforgettable toenails that were long and yellow.

Ever since then, whenever I see unkempt or overgrown toenails, the Troll of my childhood pops out of from under the bridge of my memory and comes to life. My son nodded thoughtfully, understanding my association. I know that he, like me, has pored over the pages of his picture books, pausing at the illustrations, savoring them and making them part of his understanding of the world.

In an increasingly digital age, I’m still a sucker for the traditional picture book. To me, there’s something beautiful about the way the ink sets on a page of a book, one that starts to fray over time from repeat usage. There’s something exciting in the cracking sound of hardback book binding and satisfying in the thud of flipping it shut. I love the feel of more than just turning the pages—it’s the imprinted letters, foils, endpapers and jackets. I think beautiful books are works of art to treasure, and I still buy them even though my kids are moving past the age where they read them.  

I also wonder if I would still remember Troll toes if there were images I saw on a screen, competing with the countless others I’ve seen throughout my life. It was those actual pages that brought him to life for me, and, thankfully, all these years later encouraged my son to go find a nail cutter. The sad part is, since I don’t have it saved somewhere virtually or in real life, I don’t remember the name of the book, even though I can envision the white cover and recall the drawing with vivid detail. Does anyone out there know which one I’m talking about? I’d love to have a copy again.

The next chapter

My baby boy with his favorite bookToday, I became the mother of a teen. And while that comes with its share of anxiety, disbelief and nostalgia for my baby boy, there are many unexpectedly wonderful things about having an older child. One is being able to share books with him in different ways than when he was younger.

My son has always been an enthusiastic reader. “Book” was actually his first word, uttered to an ecstatic mom before his first birthday. We read everything together since he was an infant, graduating from The Going to Bed Book to Where the Wild Things Are to the Chronicles of Narnia. And then, it stopped rather abruptly. My son started reading on his own, impatient to continue a story beyond where we left off at bedtime. Occasionally he’d come into his little brother’s room, squeeze onto the bed and listen to his old favorites. But mostly, reading became a solitary endeavor for him.

Since we didn’t read much together anymore, I started to pass on to him the books that I had loved as a child. But I had mixed results. He loved Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing and A Wrinkle in Time. But he rejected the Lord of the Rings, even when I bribed him with the reward of watching the movies when he was done. If he rejected Tolkien, I had no chance he would pick up my all-time favorite, Little Women. But I stubbornly tried.

A better approach was for me to start to read the books he was reading. I found myself eagerly waiting for him to finish the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson and, later, Hunger Games. And then I suggested we both read recommended books that were new to us both. We both loved Wonder and Shooting Kabul and, recently, A Long Walk to Water. When I asked him what he thought of the latter, he actually said he “felt like a better person” for having read it—once again to an ecstatic mother.

I couldn’t be more proud of my big boy and look forward to sharing more stories with him. Even still, I do miss snuggling him on my lap and letting him turn the pages of the picture books I could recite with my eyes closed. So happy birthday to you, son. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.