“I was determined to be the best and fastest tree climber in the family,” my husband told my children. “So I kicked him in the head while he was standing on the branch below me, and he plunged to his death.”
This was part of a series of bedtime stories invented by Aaron that revolved around his own tragic demise. In one, he was eaten by a shark; in another, he drowned in quicksand. Once, a hungry gorilla ate his fingers and hands before Aaron finally tripped and died. Oh, how the kids laughed.
Obviously, Dad dying in quicksand is funny. But lately my children’s taste in books and stories has been moving in directions that leave me mystified.
When I was in grade school, I was an avid reader who gobbled up “Ramona” books, “The Babysitter’s Club” and “The Boxcar Children.” That is to say, chapter books about kids being kids and having adventures. I remember boys in my class checking out books of Greek mythology from the school library and wondering what on earth they liked about them. Well, guess what new popular book has entered our home library? “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.” This book is apparently still so meaningful to Aaron that he pointed out to me with amazement that the cover of our new edition was blue. “What color is it supposed to be?” I asked, not knowing what he was getting at. “Yellow!” he said emphatically.
Four-year-old Harvey cuddled up next to me in bed one morning and proceeded to describe how the god Kronos swallowed all of his children to prevent them from overpowering him, until his wife tricked him into coughing them up, and they became the gods of Olympus. Harvey also enjoys the myth of Melampus, who could talk to animals, and Midas, who got more than he bargained for with the golden touch and incurred a curse from Apollo after he insulted the god’s music. “Midas has ass’ ears!” Harvey shouted with glee. When I put him to bed the other night, he requested a story about a “good god.”
I asked my husband to explain to me the appeal of these stories to a child. Aaron said he liked them when he was young because he could sense that they weren’t only for children, that they had a larger cultural currency. I think our kids like them because they’re funny, they’re larger than life, and the book has vivid, mysterious illustrations of winged gods and one-eyed Cyclopes. And because they’re intrigued by the gods’ brand of justice, which is delivered swiftly and mercilessly, if not wisely.
The kids constantly beg my aunt Lynn, who we are staying with this summer, to tell them stories about Sammy and Stevie, twins who originated in stories that she told me as a child. In the original tales, it was about a family of cats; now they’re people with an adopted pig as a brother. The stories are highly conflict-driven; Sammy is the “bad one” who convinces Stevie to sneak out of the house and disobey their parents. Their adventures conclude disastrously, with fires, fights and crashes; the twins are chided by their parents for their misbehavior before the stories end abruptly, with everyone in a bad mood.
My children can’t get enough.
Sammy and Stevie are moralistic tales without the moral. The kids make bad choices, their parents get mad at them, but no one seems to learn anything. Sort of like the Greek gods.
The kids’ books I am most excited about these days are in the “Hilo” series, which are graphic novels by San Francisco cartoonist Judd Winick. I like them not because I’m particularly interested in graphic novels, nor because I find the story in any way compelling (it revolves around a robot boy and interdimensional travel and lots of other plot points that I can’t follow). I’m excited about them because my 8-year-old, Nate, is excited about them. He curls up with the books for hours, reads them over and over, and can’t wait to get the next one in the series.
They’re the first books I’ve really seen him lose himself in. I may not relate to the stories that my kids like these days, but I know there’s nothing better than that.