By Ben Tanzer.
There is quiet. Can you hear it? Just wait a moment. Pause. Take it in.
There is no screaming about toys, Animal Jam, showers, homework, dishes, screen time, or even screaming about why someone is screaming.
No one is complaining, crying, wheezing, moaning, grousing, grumbling, protesting, or bleating. And no one is watching Pokemon, Pretty Little Liars, Kicking It, H20, The Fosters, America’s
Got Talent, or The X Factor. It is quiet, and it is like magic. It is magic.
Noah, the little one, is lying on his back, brow furrowed, skin as buttery as ever, and he is reading Miss Daisy is Crazy!, one of the 20 million books in the My Weird School series by my new best friend Dan Gutman. Other titles include Mr. Klutz is Nuts! and Mrs. Roopy is Loopy! and on and on ad infinitum.
Myles, the older one, is sprawled out on his stomach in our bed, his spiky, mushroom cap hair flying in 50 directions, his long legs splayed everywhere, and he is re-reading, yes you read that correctly, re-reading Insurgent, a book that couldn’t be more in synch with what he loves: scrappy, underdog, outcast girl discovers she is special and then kicks all kinds of butt.
There was a time, what, last week maybe, when they considered reading to be a punishment, which maybe it was. We make them read every day, and at times we have made them do so when neither could find anything else to do, but fight with one another.
When I was their age I hung around the library, running my fingers along the spines of the books, lost in the covers, titles, and the endless possibilities lined-up neatly before me: Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack. I am the Baboon. Flowers in the Attic. The Chocolate War. The Outsiders. The Hobbit. The Martian Chronicles.
I would check out four or five books at a time and I would consume them, the words like the candy I shoplifted back then, chewy, sweet, life affirming, and necessary.
One time when Myles was two years-old, we took him to a party at a friend’s house. The other children were doing what two year-olds do, dancing, jumping, running, crying, everything one can engage in while not exactly playing together. I watched Myles leave our side and weave his way through the masses before him. He avoided every kid in his path and bee-lined for the bookshelf. Once there he proceeded to pull all of the children’s books off of the shelf and then sat there in the middle of the pile, looking at each, one by one as the party went on around him.
This was amazing to watch, and something I felt proud of in its own weird anti-social way. But it didn’t linger, this love of books was something brief, a blip, and maybe looking back, it wasn’t about books at all anyway, but crowds, chaos, and the anxieties that come with them.
I don’t know, but I do know that I want him, and Noah to read, and to love reading, and while the feeling is desperate, and embarrassing, few things have meant more to me.
When I was their age, I read at the dinner table. I read in museums my family visited, stretched out on the long black, leather seats. I read on car trips, carrying a flashlight with me, so I wouldn’t have to stop. I read to fill time and space; to avoid my parent’s never-ending dialogue about art and politics and everything in between; and to keep the voices in my head telling me I was loser with at bay.
I read to escape all of it, and everything, the confusion, the anger, the noise, and the desperate need to understand how things work, and don’t, especially relationships, both my parents and mine; and to find some kind of peace, or at least some semblance of it.
And I still do.
“I only get to see my kid for like 30 minutes a day after work,” the young guy behind the counter at the pizza place in our neighborhood says to me one day when I walk-in and the small talk has run its course, “his mom and I are not so cool right now.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, “thanks. Anyway, what should I do? What would you do, if you only had 30 minutes a day with your kid?”
“I would read to him,” I say, “even 20 minutes of reading a day is great for brain development.”
I might be bound to say something like this regardless of what may be the actual truth, but this is the truth, and there is science to back it up.
“Really?” he says incredulously.
“Really,” I say, “it’s like magic, but it isn’t, its science, promise.”
“Okay,” he says, and after he fills my order he gets on his bike and rides away.
The first book I ever read cover to cover was a collection of Family Circus cartoons. You may know them. There is a mom and a dad, who doesn’t seem to have any eyes. There are the kids, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and PJ, the baby. There are also the “not me” ghosts, and a maybe not so subtle religious context that is more obvious to me now that I read Family Circus with the boys.
People tell me they hate Family Circus. It’s too traditional, too retro and 1950’s, with the stay at home mom and the dad shuffling to and from the office. And I get all of that, but back then, when I was kid, I didn’t think about it.
What I knew then, was that I was just starting to read and it was the book I picked-up one morning instead of turning on the television as I lounged in our basement surrounded by the dark, barn wood walls my dad put in.
Soon page after page began to fly by, and I started to get scared.
It was like the time I road my bike up the street by my house and I decided it was finally time to go passed the speed limit sign at the top of the hill, an act that even then I knew was a kind of demarcation between childhood and something else, what comes next, knowledge, independence, and facing what I feared.
On the other side of the sign, and down the steep hill that a waited me there, was a ravine. It was dark, and there was blind curve, but if you made it, a whole new world opened-up to you.
I had been scared to pass that sign, just as I was now scared to finish the book. What would happen when I did?
It turns out that nothing happened, and everything.
There were no balloons or cheering fans when I reached that last page, just as there were no dragons or pots of gold awaiting me when I rode down the hill and by the ravine. But I also learned that doing these things were possible and real and that having tasted them, there was no turning back.
When I was little and I could not sleep my father read to me, book after book, Ferdinand, Flat Stanley, and so on. And when he ran out of books he went to the library and read about stories he could tell me, Czar Trojan and his goat’s ears, and Ooka the Wise, the greatest judge in Old Japan. When he ran out of those, he made up stories about the ravens that cross over from the other side carrying messages from those we’ve lost. Then I started to read myself, and I didn’t need him anymore, but he had done his job. I tried to do the same with the boys, reading them the endless books that flowed into the house, telling stories, and talking about books, always, and yet something didn’t seem to be working, and I never understood why.
“He only wants to read comic books and graphic novels,” we say to Myles teacher.
This is something that I could have never have predicted I would perceive as a problem before I became a parent, and I’m not even sure I think it is as he we ask the teacher about it. It’s just that, he should at least read some books at least some of the time, right?
“But he’s reading,” she says.
She is kindly. She cares about him and teaching.
“He is,” we say.
“Don’t worry about it then,” she says.
When I was ten I was given a copy of The Basketball Diaries and it was so electric and full of pulsating energy, it nearly imploded in my hands. The characters were alive, they had dimension, and vibrancy; the action was real time, the rooftop masturbation, the basketball, and New York City this throbbing mass of concrete and thrills. And then there were the girls, the drugs, the sex, and sex abuse, and I don’t know what I thought it meant to me then, but I know it meant that people must actually live like that, and that whether or not I was ever going to live like that myself, I wanted to at least somehow have the feeling again of what it felt like to read about it for the first time.
I still want that today, but now I want it for my children as well. How can’t they want it too? And why isn’t it automatic? I just don’t get it. But that’s the thing. So much of what we want to happen to our children when we are parents, crawling, walking, running, talking, and on and on, is so confusing, and we never know how or when it will start, and when it does start, it seems like magic. We don’t know why it’s happening. It just does when it does.
When I was a child there was a local children’s entertainer named Todd the Magician. He played at children’s parties, including mine. He wore a powder blue polyester tuxedo, a ruffled white shirt, and an enormous black bow tie.
Todd didn’t make the Statue of Liberty disappear, hang himself in a coffin from some tall building, or wrap himself in a straight jacket and allow people to throw him in the Susquehanna River so he could dramatically escape as his oxygen grew increasingly low and desperate.
But none of that mattered, because he performed magic, actual magic, all full of twisty balloons, endless scarves, shiny rings, and sleight of hand.
There was nothing, and then there was something, or there was something, and then nothing, but regardless, something happened while Todd just stood there, smiling, magnificent, and God-like. Or at least as God-like as one can be in a powder blue polyester tuxedo on a hot June day.
It helped of course to not try and figure out what he was doing, to just be in the moment, and that was fine with me. Unlike real life, I never cared how magic worked, just as I never really cared then, or now, how you can climb into a metal cylinder, sit there as it leaves the ground, and then read a book as it takes you from one place to another.
It was it was, or it is what it is, unlike the relationships I could never quite understand, I accepted that if you suspended your doubts and fears about most everything else, believed in magic, and trusted that things would work out as they are supposed to, they would.
Not always mind you, but much of the time.
So, when you take-off from JFK your plane stays in the air as the houses grow smaller, the earth begins to look like a series of interlocking grids, and the lakes give away to mountains. And then you are suddenly landing at LAX, where the sky is always blue, and the chance for magic happening feels palpable and endless.
Like any relationship, parenting doesn’t always feel like that though, not in the moment anyway, and not until it does, but it will, eventually, and much of the time anyway.
And so, on this day there is quiet.
Can you hear it?
Just wait a moment.
Take it in.
It is like magic. It is magic.
The boys are reading and not because we made them do so, or because it is so important to me. It is because developmentally they have caught up with my needs and impatience, and my inability to accept that unlike actual magic, when it comes to parenting, things happen as they are supposed to if you remain diligent and trust in their inevitability.
As important as all of that, there is also the fact that the boys have found things they like, and that speak to them. They have their Family Circus and The Basketball Diaries.
A switch has flipped, and some bizzarro sleight of hand has occurred right in front of me. There was nothing, but now there is something.
There is read.
And so maybe it isn’t actually magic, but it sure feels like it.
Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, Lost in Space, Four Fathers, which he co-authored with Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, and Tom Williams, and Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal, among others. He also contributes to Men’s Health, directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his vast, albeit faux, lifestyle empire.
Hi Ben. I was also an obsessive reader when I was young, and still read an awful lot now, as much as I can with two little children. I read every day to my eldest child, and when that little bit of magic happened, when reading stopped being difficult and became second nature, I was so happy. He was about 8 when that happened. My daughter, 4 years younger, is a natural reader – she just seemed to absorb reading like osmosis, and at the age of 6 reads fluently and naturally, years above her level. Reading is about access, environment and personality…but some people read when there is none of that. More power to them!
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