You may be familiar with the recent viral experiment “I Let My Boyfriend/Husband Dress Me For A Week,” wherein brave women relinquish control of their closets and let the men in their lives take the fashion reins. As you can imagine, the results have been a combination of the comical, the endearing, the smutty, and the pleasantly—sometimes jaw-droppingly—surprising.
So this month I thought I’d take this same challenge but steer it down a literary road; instead of outfits, I’d insist on books. On top of that, I thought it might be nice (aka, beneficial to my marriage) to spare my husband the pressure of selecting said publicized reads and, as a potentially disastrous alternative, enlist my sons to the task.
It’s important to note that my children are 4 and 9. Their idea of “quality reading” usually involves something under 50 pages that features LARGE PRINT and a back page of detachable scratch-and-sniff stickers. Granted, my fourth grader has recently completed several notable, award-winning middle-grade books for his class’s literary circle (because he was assigned to do so), but you should probably know my pre-kindergartner spent the entirety of his eight dollars at the annual school book fair on World’s Cutest Cats & Kittens in 3-D.
So this experiment came with an element of risk. “Boys,” I explained at the bookstore. “You have to browse every section. Not just the kids’ books.” I quickly added: “And I’m not reading anything that has a corresponding cartoon on television.” These were necessary guidelines, lest I end up with five copies of SpongeBob Goes to the Doctor. (Because I have already seen that episode. Thrice. And believe me, I know more than I ever wanted to know about “The Suds.”)
Here were the rules: George, age 9, was allowed to select two books. Mark, age 4, was allowed to select two books. The final book, they had to agree on. It will come as no surprise that this stipulation resulted in a bar room brawl between the sci-fi aisle and the kitty cat endcap. I eventually led them over to the cookbook section, where I delivered my ultimatum: “PICK SOMETHING NOW OR YOU DON’T GET CANDY.”
So, without much further ado about nothing, here’s what we went home with:
Pax, by Sara Pennypacker
This lovely novel was chosen without hesitation by Mark, who picked it because it has a sweet, illustrated fox on the front. But don’t be fooled; although this book has both tenderness and charming drawings by Jon Klassen in spades, it isn’t a cute, little picture book. Rather, iPax is a profound and timely novel (perfect for grades 5 and up) that tackles the devastation of war, the process of grief, and the mysterious bond between a boy and his dog. Or in this case, a boy and his fox.
Peter and Pax have been together (and inseparable) ever since Peter rescued the fox as a kit and his father reluctantly allowed him to keep and raise him. It’s a relationship destined to bloom, as both boy and fox lost their mothers at a young age and are both desperate to find a fellow lonelyheart. But when Peter turns 12 and his father enlists in the army, the unthinkable happens: Peter’s father forces him to take Pax to the woods and release him, before Peter is sent 300 miles away to live with his grandfather. Within hours of his arrival, Peter makes the daring decision to run away. Armed with just the bare essentials, plus his baseball glove, Peter sets out to reunite with Pax no matter the risk.
Told in chapters alternating between the brave, searching voice of Peter and the sharp, believable voice of Pax, this groundbreaking tour de force follows the unforgettable journeys of boy and fox, the dangers they face, the friends they meet, and the love that propels them forward despite the bleak landscapes of an unnamed, eerily contemporary war.
What a special discovery in this selection. I don’t normally browse this age group for myself, but thanks to this experiment, I found an epic must-read for myself and my soon-to-be 10-year-old.
Gluten is my Bitch: Rants, Recipes, and Ridiculousness for the Gluten-Free, by April Peveteaux
Gluten is my Bitch has the big ol’ B-word on its cover, which is very funny to kids who can read. “Are we buying this?!” George asked incredulously. “Really?! You’re really going to let me pick out a book with B-I-T-C-H on the front?” It also has a big picture of charred toast on the front, which is very funny to kids who can’t read. “Look!” Mark squealed. “Breakfast like you make, Mommy!”
Superficial selection reasons aside, Gluten is my Bitch turned out to be an excellent book. Yes, we, like lots of annoying people everywhere, have discovered that the amber waves of grain are not our friends. Thankfully, none of us is celiac, but this indispensable book for the wheat-wary is written for anyone struggling with symptoms that point toward gluten intolerance, such as gastrointestinal distress, depression, anxiety, and exhaustion. (Just to name a miserable few.)
Author Peveteaux was diagnosed with celiac as an adult. The result of her discovering she’d no longer be able to eat cupcakes and doughnuts ever again? A brief period of despair, followed by the launch of her hilarious blog, “Gluten Is My Bitch.” So honest, entertaining, and popular was her site, a book of the same name inevitably followed. And I’m so glad it has that big ol’ B-word on its cover, because otherwise I would have never encountered the LOL brilliance of Peveteaux.
Within I found an indispensable guide to living gluten-free, complete with lots of unfiltered personal anecdotes and truly useful advice from one of the funniest and most unabashed bloggers around. Need to know how to grocery shop, parent, travel to France, or eat at a TGI Friday’s without “getting glutened”? Peveteaux’s got you covered, with great advice and more than 60 wheat-free recipes ranging from mac and cheese to Ding Dongs. Oh, yes. So, if you’re celiac, wheat intolerant/allergic, or suspecting you might be, I highly recommend you go find the book with the burnt toast and B-word on the cover. It ended up being a delightful read. Nice work, kids.
The Happy Prince and Other Stories, by Oscar Wilde
At my urging that he consider the classics aisle, George quickly picked out this one and set it on our growing stack. “Why this?” I asked, curious. “I dunno,” he said. “It looks good.” I found that surprising, as the Puffin version of this renowned Oscar Wilde collection is not particularly remarkable cover-wise. There’s just a gold prince crying one tear next to a small bird—no blood or gore, much less the B-word!—in sight. But my son was set on his choice, so I dove into it with delight. Partly because I’m a sucker for fairy tales, but also because (and I disclose this shamefully, as an English major) I’ve never read Oscar Wilde. Having dodged both The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, it seemed destined that this would come my way.
And what a fantastic discovery it was. Wilde’s narratives are deeply imaginative, lush with vivid description, and chock full of wisdom, tragedy, and longing. The title story, “The Happy Prince,” is one of the most lovely and plaintive of the bunch. It tells the legend of a golden statue of a Prince who overlooks the poverty of a city and attempts to save its residents by enlisting a lone sparrow to strip him of his jewels and give them to the poor.
Another favorite was a cautionary parable for the miserly, “The Selfish Giant.” It details the fate of an uncharitable giant who builds a wall to keep schoolchildren from his beautiful flower garden and orchard, only to have his property fall into a permanent winter. Expect an unexpected ending, rife with religious symbolism.
“The Nightingale and the Rose” is one of the more melancholy yet glorious accounts of unrequited love I’ve read since Romeo and Juliet, and “The Devoted Friend” is about a fellow who is everything but that, replete with the best and worst of humanity. Each of the nine gems in this series, from “The Remarkable Rocket,” “The Young King” and “The Birthday of the Infanta” to “The Star-Child” and “The Fisherman and His Soul” is filled with delightful just desserts and evocative morals. They’re appropriate for kids, but profound enough for adults, making them a wonderful read or read-aloud guaranteed to spark lots of metaphysical discussions.
Snuggle the Baby: An Interactive Book!, by Sara Gillingham
Mark chose this innovative and interactive board book, probably because its 1960-style design and colors are irresistible, but maybe (just maybe) because he has a new baby cousin he isn’t particularly keen on. This great selection is perfect for kids who want to know how babies work, as well as for kids who think they don’t want to know how babies work.
Inside, kids will find a sturdy, swaddled board baby who snaps neatly into bed, as well as a removable bottle that can be used to feed it. There’s a blanket that secures with Velcro, a lift-flap to tickle baby’s tummy, little arms that swing up to show “SO BIG!”, and most excitingly, a diaper that can be opened and closed. Mark originally chose this, I believe, to be silly (or regressive), but was soon entranced by the care of his cardboard friend. With pages on playing, moving, feeding, changing, comforting, and sleeping, this is a terrific gift book for soon-to-be big brothers and sisters—or cousins—who need to know their way around an infant, but may be intimidated by one who is actually alive.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King
Before I had kids, I was scared by a things both abstract and far-fetched, including Bigfoot, shark attacks, demonic hauntings, and loneliness, just to name a few. But after motherhood, my fears turned to the more concrete and probable, such as super lice, kidnappers, fourth-grade math, and knowing it would be a while before I had the luxury of being lonely again. So when George selected a Stephen King book, I breathed a sigh of relief. How nice it will be, I thought, to return to the world of bogeymen instead of domestic neuroses.
Was I ever wrong. First off, this lesser-known King book is about a 9-year-old who gets lost in the woods. UM. THAT IS VERY LIKELY. Second of all, King has a way of writing—and spooking—that makes a case of super lice sound like a pleasant way to spend a weekend…or two.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the story of Trisha McFarland, a young girl who tires of her squabbling brother and mother while hiking, and decides to hang back for a moment of peace on the Appalachian Trail. The next thing she knows, she’s utterly lost. Armed with a little food and her Walkman, Trisha decides to follow a river while listening to a baseball game featuring her favorite player and crush, Tom Gordon. Like all King novels, things start out relatively well for Trisha (she does have two Twinkies, a tuna sandwich, and some wilderness ideas picked up from Little House on the Prairie), but soon enough, dehydration and panic have her hallucinating. She sees familiar faces, including that of Tom Gordon, but eventually becomes so delusional she believes the God of the Lost—a wasp-faced evil creature—is hunting her down.
Each chapter in this unconventional terror tale is represented by an inning, and by “The Bottom of the Ninth,” readers will wonder if there’s any way Trisha is getting out of this alive, or with her sanity intact. Both traditionally creepy and psychologically thrilling, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a King book I’d never heard of but now can’t get out of my mind. So, thanks, George. Thanks, a lot. Oh, and guess what else? I found out this book now has a POP-UP VERSION. Like anything more needed to jump off the page here? I didn’t think so, but guess what. It’s incredible, too.
In conclusion, letting my kids pick my next five reads turned out to be astoundingly fun. I don’t think I would have chosen any of the selections on my own, but after reading them, there’s not one I wouldn’t recommend. So the next time you’re in the bookstore with your kids, you might want to let them choose something for you—you could find yourself pleasantly surprised. Plus, it’s safer than letting them go down the fashion route. You might not end up enjoying your book on baseball stats, but it’s better than having to run to Target wearing adult footie pajamas and a snorkel mask.