Remember that heartbreaking scene in Catcher in the Rye when Holden drops the record he bought for his little sister and it shatters into a million pieces? Or when Sylvia says she can no longer be with Dorian Gray because their love is interfering with her art? Or the deeply sad ending to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Wait, what, you don’t? Just kidding, neither did I, at least not until recently. It wasn’t something I thought about too much until I had middle-school age kids who had graduated to reading books that used sophisticated literary devices like, you know, symbolism. Then suddenly I found myself fielding questions like “Mom, what would you have done with Lennie if you were George?” When I tell then 13-year-old Abby that I don’t remember much about Of Mice and Men, she is incredulous.
“How could you forget the last scene? I can’t stop thinking about it!”
Instead of lecturing her on the seven million things that have cluttered my aging brain since eighth grade, I decide she’s right. That summer, on the first leg of our flight to Hawaii, I read Of Mice and Men cover to cover, and find myself weeping over Lennie’s tragic fate. I’m consoled only by Abby, who is sitting next to me and eager to talk it through. The book was way better than I remembered — truly, how could I have forgotten the ending? — but the real reward was that conversation, a genuine heart-to-heart with my daughter about friendship and loneliness.
Bonding over books is not the only reason I love reading what my kids are reading. I read The Giver and Maus, and A Picture of Dorian Gray to fill a few of my embarrassingly wide literary voids. Phoebe, a dark fantasy girl of the highest order, read Dorian Gray so many times that I lived in fear of her discovering the truth about her mother: I had never read anything by Oscar Wilde. (This as an English major, no less!) Other times, I’ll read something just to feel a little closer to them. Like the time Phoebe wrote to us from sleepaway camp saying how glad she was that she brought along her best friend Tintin. That night, out of solidarity, I started reading the half dozen or so Herge volumes she left behind. There were still other instances when I’d pick up titles — like Wonder and The Fault in Our Stars — simply because I sensed they were going to define my childrens’ era and I wanted to know why.
Is it always a hugely rich and satisfying literary experience? Of course not. No matter how much Phoebe begs me to read V is for Vendetta or even Brave New World, I just can’t get into either. But I’m pretty sure both of the girls at least appreciate the effort.
I wrote this essay as part of an awesome summer reading package (the best of the season’s memoirs, thrillers, novels, plus standout books for teens) in the July issue of Family Circle.