As a kid, I loved to read and couldn’t put a good book down until it was done. I’d sneak a flashlight or, later, a night light plugged into an extension cord, under the covers. I stayed awake as late as my eyes would stay open, turning pages. One night when I was six, very late, trying to reach a book on the far side of the bookshelf without leaving my bed, I fell and landed awkwardly on my backward-bent hand, and broke four fingers.
Ingrid has loved to be read to since before she could walk, but over the past many months I’ve felt like we’ve lost our fire for reading together. She seems like she’s not paying attention, or she wants to read the longest books repeatedly, which I have trouble getting excited about (Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka, anyone?), and she doesn’t ask to be read to much; it’s just a bedtime and naptime ritual, one that I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve rushed through more often than I’d like to.
Then over the past week I heard two people mention reading Charlotte’s Web to their four-year-olds, and I got the idea that Ingrid might bored with the reading material we’ve been offering. It’s either short picture books or longer books that are really meant for kids learning to read on their own, so the sentences and plots are far simpler than she really needs.
So last night I took my childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web off the shelf. “I have something special we can read together if you want to.”
She looked at the picture of ponytailed Fern snuggling Wilbur.
“It’s a big kids’ book that I think you’re ready for.” I flipped through it. “Look at all the words. It only has a few pictures, and for the rest of it you listen to the story and imagine what it looks like.”
She gave the cover a few hard taps with four fingers. “It has a really nice sound. You do it, Mama.” I did.
She smelled it. “It smells like paper.”
“I love the smell of books, too.”
“I want to read it now.”
We talked about the idea of chapters, and then we read the first two, with lots of stops for me to check whether she wanted me to keep going. (She did.) I did some fancy real-time editing around Avery’s weaponry and the answer to the question, “Where are you going with that axe, Pa?” She wanted to sleep with the book, and in the morning, padded down the stairs with it and asked me to read another chapter on the couch before she even had her cereal.
After lunch, I was getting Iris ready to nap and A was in the bathroom helping Ingrid brush her teeth. She took a sideways step into the corner to reach Charlotte’s Web on the counter, tripped on A’s foot, slipped on the rug, and crashed forehead first—her hands were caught up on the counter and couldn’t really break her fall— onto the edge of the stepstool.
She had a deep, three-quarter inch gash above her eyebrow, and she screamed and screamed. A and I fought wooziness, found clean cloths, and tried to reassure her. Iris counted the drops of blood on the floor: “One, two, five, eighteen, nine, ten, eleven…”
On the way out the door to the emergency room, I asked her if she wanted to take something special with her. A stuffed animal? A blanket?
Of course. I retrieved it from the bathroom counter, and she cradled it as she cried all the way there in the car. It wasn’t a happy visit—this is a child for whom fingernail clipping is a low form of torture. The hospital’s fantastic staff dug pretty deep into their toolboxes to soothe her, and came up with a few winners— some awesome conversational tactics, narcotics, and the ultimately more successful grape popsicle—to get her cut cleaned out and sewn shut.
But, this being a busy urban children’s hospital clogged with mucous-secreting swine flu sufferers, there was also plenty of waiting to be done. We were there at least three hours. And once they’d slapped some magical numbing ointment on her forehead, as long as no one was trying to examine her, Ingrid was really calm. She sat in my lap as we waited in the lobby trying not to breathe the air or touch anything, and she lounged next to me in the narrow bed in the exam room where we waited some more, and all the time we read Charlotte’s Web. We read some parts more than once. More than twice. But most of the time, when I asked her if she wanted me to keep going, she said yes. We read for hours, all the way past the part where Wilbur, weeping little lonely piggy tears in his sty, hears a thin voice say, “I’ll be your friend.”
She’s sleeping now, with five stitches in her forehead and Charlotte’s Web beside her.