If you read the book lists I share from time to time, you might get the impression that my children have superb taste.
This is not the case. They are voracious readers, but, as the dictionary points out, "voracious" is from the Latin vorare "to devour;" akin to Old English ācweorran "to guzzle," Latin gurges "whirlpool." So, down the hatch go the books -- all books, any books, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Junie B. Jones, from Gogol to Goosebumps.
It's bad enough when you know your kids are poisoning their own minds with worthless trash, but it's almost intolerable when they insist that you get involved. What to do when their favorite read-aloud books make you break out in hives? Over the years, I've developed some strategies for enduring that cozy, homey, purgatorial delight called STORY TIME.
1. Streamlining. Children's books are repetitious for a reason: New readers find the predictability to be encouraging, and the repeating patterns foster a sense of security and well-being in young kids. On the other hand, they foster a sense of stabbiness in old parents. Well, you know what? Security comes in funny packages sometimes. Sometimes that package is labelled, "Mommy has her limits." So here's what you do: You strike a balance. Green Eggs and Ham is a prime subject for therapeutic streamlining, and it goes something like this: "Would you, could you in a train? No. Would you could you in the rain? No. Would you could you on a boat? No. Would you could you on a NO. No no no. Hey, I like them. The end."
2. Revisionist Ad-libbing. Make the story go the way it ought to go. "And then, as Fancy Nancy's parents hauled her up from the floor where she lay sobbing, they suddenly realized that their overindulgence was turning their otherwise serviceable child into a quivering mass of vanity and insecurity. The next day, when she woke up, her canopied bed was gone, her fringed pillows were no more, and right where her collection of stuffed poodles used to be was a mop and a bucket. And that's when Fancy Nancy became Hard-Hand Nan, the Clean-Up Man."
3. Private contests. These are for the truly desperate reader -- say, a parent who is trying to pass the time for a child who must be encouraged to stay on the couch for a while, lest he throw up once more. Once you've read a book often enough, you don't even have to actually give more than 2% of your attention to the words on the page. Your voice will automatically go up and down in a more or less appropriate fashion, and if you accidentally skip three or four pages, the kiddies will definitely alert you to this fact. So here is what you do: Don't change anything, but see how many paragraphs you can get through in one breath! Mike Mulligan's got nothing on you: Maybe he got through four corners, neat and square, but you got through three entire pages one one lungful without blacking out! A new record. Catch mommy, kids; mommy feels a little dizzy.
4. Inappropriate German accents. Especially effective on the most ooey gooey children's books, the ones that are not actually designed to be enjoyed by children, but by mothers who are gloppily, sloppily in love with the idea of themselves as mothers. Drowning in kiddie bathos? A little pinch of Teutonic precision will put things to rights again. "And Bunsy Wunsy said to his mommy, 'But what about when all the stars are done twinkling and winkling? Will you still love me then, Mommy?' -- 'ACH, JA! I vill luff yoo FOREVER UND EVER! Und I vill NEHHHHHHHHHver schtop LUFFING yoo, becowse hyou ahr my SCHVEETHAHRT!'" Perhaps not best for right before bed, but nicely bracing at other times of the day.
5. Putting your foot down. There are some books that I just plain will not read, and I don't even have to give a reason. Berenstain Bears falls into this category; "books" based on Disney cartoons based on actual books; ditto for books ghostwritten by celebrities who did their best to corrupt me when I was a child, and who now have children of their own and have decided that it's time to make the world a better place in which to live in, and just wants to help the children, be they black, or be they white, or be they whatever, and so here is this book about a ballerina who needs to learn to love herself for who she is deep down.
But in order to pull this one off, there have to be books that I will always read, no matter what, with no cheating: Anything by Arnold Lobel. Anything by Wanda Gág. Almost anything by Tomie de Paola, Maurice Sendak, or William Steig, anything by Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski. And yeah, it's kind of hard to say, "No, I will not read those Bible stories to you!" I don't even need my German accent.