(He won’t read it. He hates everything.) #2
Last month in “Books for Mikey,” the topic of moms and dads came up as I brainstormed possible categories for this month. It went something like:
“Books for Dads to finagle into the hands of their Mikeys, and possibly read at the same time and discuss later.”
“Books Mikeys won’t be suspicious of just because their moms recommended them.”
Then I started to wonder why I think Dads are finagling and only possibly reading books with their boys, while moms are emphatically recommending and thereby making their sons suspicious? Probably because my household is like many others, even though I’m a kid’s book writer, for Pete’s sake. I have been known to let myself fade into the background when it comes to my children’s reading, and let their mom take care of trips to the bookstore, summer reading lists, book discussions, etc.
Which is a huge mistake in a time when boys of all shapes and sizes are losing interest in books.
I should know this better than anyone. Sure, I read books by the truckload now, and write books, too, and teach literature—I’ve always loved books. But I never quite realized how great it could be to be a boy AND love books at the same time until I read The Twenty One Balloons, by William Pene DuBois. Which is an astonishing yarn, the 1948 Newbery Medal Winner. It will seem intriguingly old-fashioned and exotic to today’s nine-to-twelve-year-old reader, illustrated in early Industrial-Age-schematic black-and-white that will appeal to any tinkerer or builder. It’s short but brilliant, perfectly plotted, ridiculously imaginative, and fascinating. It has everything a book needs to lure and land a reluctant reader, although I wasn’t what anybody would call a reluctant reader—sometimes I just felt funny about sitting inside on the couch on a summer afternoon reading while everybody else was outside doing important stuff like shooting hose water up each other’s noses.
Here’s what really got me about The Twenty One Balloons: When I was about halfway through, my dad saw me reading it and happened to mention that he’d read it too! My dad was a chemistry teacher, but at some point he’d taken a Children’s Literature course on the side for his own edification, and The Twenty One Balloons had been on his reading list. He liked it. He really liked it. I mean, he remembered everything about the book, and he said stuff like: “How about those twenty ball-and-socket hose joints with a hundred-and-fifty-pound breakaway limit each, containing the one-way gas valve, for inflating their escape balloons with hydrogen?” And: “The Krakatoans thought they had it all figured out, but greed had clouded their minds.”
I had thought these very same thoughts. At least, I’d thought thoughts perhaps a bit less elegantly constructed, but exhibiting the same overall shape, thoughts that pulled into focus with a zap when my dad casually made his observations.
I’ll always remember thinking, “That’s what it’s like. That’s what it’s like to be a guy who likes books.” And, “I understand my dad. We’re thinking the same thing. I see what he sees. We like the same story.” Of course the feeling was fleeting, and life begins to complicate moments like this as soon as they occur. There was never another book like The Twenty One Balloons. But in a way, there didn’t have to be. As a reader, and as a young man, I had stepped into myself like I never had before, and I had inhabited a new persona: my dad showed me that men can let their guards down and be astonished by the magic in stories, and for just under two hundred pages, when I was eleven or twelve, we were astonished together.
David Teague is the author of Franklin’s Big Dreams (Disney/Hyperion). He’s currently at work on his next picture book, Billy Hightower, forthcoming in 2013, and is collaborating with his wife, the novelist Marisa de los Santos, on a young adult novel, Margaret O’Malley. For more about David and his books, visit http://www.davidteague.net/ or http://www.facebook.com/FranklinDreams.