Last December my eight-year old nephew visited us from the U.S. It was his first trip to Germany, his first long vacation away from home in many years, and his eagerness to get here was matched by our enthusiasm to prepare for his visit. Wife and I planned and emailed him a ten-day itinerary, full of events and day-trips and guided tours for kids, to which he replied with a request, politely phrased, for more time at home. We guessed why — home was ideal for playing games on his Nintendo DS — but it turned out that there was more to it than video games.
The boy is a reader. In his ten days here he read as many books and finished half my collection of the complete Tintin series. When I told him how happy I was to see him read, he thanked me with a wide smile and added that last year, in his second grade, he had read a hundred and seventy five books, just twenty five short of the mark the school had set for the first prize, an iPod. No one had won it, but he seemed confident to reach the goal this year.
After reading each book he wrote a summary on a sheet in his “reading package,” a collection of empty forms issued by his school teacher, Ms.Rutledge. The summaries, brief and simple, made me wonder what sort of a reader he’d grow up into. His summary of Stuart Little, E.B.White’s classic, ran like this:
There is a mouse named Stuart. He is a great help to his family. His parents like him a lot! Soon a bird flies into Stuart’s home, and becomes friends with him. Just a few days later, the bird gets a letter which said to leave because a cat will eat her. So she leaves. Stuart follows her with a mini-car. He meets many people and spends time with them.
It is a fine outline, the sort of sketch E.B.White may have begun with. In a few short sentences we have character, setting, conflict, adventure: a plot. The narrative advances swiftly and ends, like the book, without resolution. His choice of story elements to highlight — “great help to his family”, “parents like him” — is instructive; so is his lack of interest in editing the visible error.
The novel, published in 1945, is charming in its details. Stuart’s father, Mr.Little, makes him “a tiny bed out of four clothes-pins and a cigarette box”; his parents constantly worry that he’ll disappear into the “mousehole in the pantry”; Snowbell, the resident cat, refers to himself as a “permanent guest”; during a boat race in a pond inside New York’s Central Park, when Stuart’s sailboat is stuck in flotsam, we read that he “jumped for the halyards, and the jib and the forestaysail came rippling down”. And somewhere in the middle of Stuart’s adventure to find his friend Margalo, the bird who has flown away from home, we find a chapter that opens with this sentence:
In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.
I do not know if the boy noticed these details, or paused to consider the beauty of that long sentence. Unlikely, if not impossible; like most young readers he probably glosses over things he finds uninteresting for his age, focusing on elements he can use to create the imaginary world in the book. I also did not ask him what he thought of the unresolved ending, but I suspect it did not bother him much: he was keen to start with the next E.B.White book, Charolette’s Web. An encouraging sign in a young reader.
Another book he read, and reread in parts, was Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Dahl writes with a chilling conviction about witches, so much so that when I finished it a few years ago the book left me with a lingering doubt: on this matter of witches perhaps we adults were the hoodwinked ones? After the boy read the book I asked him if he’d seen any witches in the United States. “There aren’t many left there.” I added.
“Witches aren’t real!” he replied. There was not an ounce of doubt in his voice.
“Really? But you just read about them!”
“That’s just a story.”
“But how can you be so sure there aren’t any out there?”
“I googled it.”
“Googled it? What did you google?” By now I was having difficulty keeping a straight face.
“Actually, after I read the book I asked mommy to google ‘Are witches real?’ and we found a website that said they weren’t real.”
“And you believed it?”
He nodded vigorously, a proper up-and-down American nod, not the sideways head-shuffle of an Indian, and returned to the Tintin book he was reading.