Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Characters Make Great Kids

My youngest son, Sam, has spent his lifetime trying to keep up with the three older kids in our family. He skipped the Fisher Price people and moved up to Hot Wheels as soon as he could sit up. He strapped on roller blades and skis before he started kindergarten, he was so determined to do what the big kids did.

So when my fourth grader came home from school one day and announced he wanted to read a book called Hatchet, which is a book most kids read ‘for school’ in the fifth grade, I was not surprised.

He plowed through the first chapter and realized it might be an easier read if mom helped him out. So for the next few weeks Sam and I went on an adventure together. Every night at 8:30 we snuggled in my bed and found out ‘what happened next’. The book is about a young boy who gets stranded in the woods by himself, in a remote area of Canada. He has no supplies (except a hatchet) and has to figure out how to survive. The draw was obvious for my adventure loving/woods loving boy.

As the character discovered new ways to find food and provide shelter for himself, Sam and I went along for the ride. As he had set backs and frustrations, Sam and I sympathized, and soon felt like he was a friend of ours, stuck in a bad situation. Sam saw him as a kid he might definitely be friends with and my protective mommy heart craved a chance to save him.

Soon it was time to do the monthly book report project and Sam was determined to use this book. It was imperative that we finish it up so he could dive into his project. We met on the couch on a Sunday evening, knowing we had to read until the end.

The story picks up a lot in the last chapters. The tension builds as the boy tries, almost in vain, to retrieve an emergency supplies kit from the crashed plane that put him in the situation in the first place.

Finally, finally he gets his hands on it. After two months of figuring out life in the wild, and setting up a pretty logical and productive system for survival, the boy is suddenly surrounded by simple supplies that can mean the world to a person, if your only possession is a hatchet.

Pots and pans.

Fishing line.

A small gun that could replace his crudely built bow and arrow.

And dozens of packets of real food.

Sam and I had become so involved with this boy’s plight, that as we read the list of supplies he’d found, we were giddy for him, like it was Christmas morning.

These items that are so accessible to us in our daily life, were so priceless to this boy who was lost in the woods.

I paused my reading and we sat for a minute, just looking at each other, in awe.

Sam had been literally bouncing up and down on the couch next to me as I’d read the list of supplies, he was so excited. As we got to the part where the boy is setting up his first real meal, a bowl of hot beef stew, boiled in his precious new pot, and realizing his long term survival seems even more likely, we were both struck with gratitude.

You can imagine how excited we got then, when just a few pages later, a plane touches down to rescue this long forgotten boy. Talk about cheering and high fiving; we were ecstatic.

We did finish the book that night. Then we ran off to tell Daddy about how it all had ended. It somehow felt like this boy was our friend and we were ready to call the papers to announce his rescue, but telling Daddy had to do.

As I laid in bed that night, trying to go to sleep, I realized something. Through the gift of that well written book I learned a few things. I became more educated on wilderness survival for sure.

But I was also reminded of the value of character dense books. That kind of story that makes you feel like you are a part of the character’s life, and have a vested interest in the resolution to his problem. The kind of book you don’t want to end because it means saying good bye to a new friend.

And I realized that with child number four I’d become lazy. It was too easy to set him up with books that were easy reads. The kind of books I’d call fluff books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Captain Underpants. Goosebumps. He can read through those quickly and feel good that he’s finished another book. Those books are fine every once in a while. But it’s important I give him a steady diet of meatier books too.

They might take longer to read, and sometimes he might need me to encourage him to tackle those harder books, but they have such value. He gains so much by seeing how more literary books are written and naturally falling in love with their characters.

He sees how other people live and react to life, outside of his own experiences. It makes him a better writer, having read deeper books, but I think it also makes him a better citizen of the planet.

I know the books I’m going to encourage him to read. I made his siblings read them when they were his age. I’d just forgotten how important it was to make sure my last little guy had good literature in his hands too.

It took a very special evening on the couch, cheering together for a good solid character, to remind me to pay attention.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Judy. What a thoughtful post that reminded me of all the good stuff we writers, readers, and parents- who-read-with-our-kids need to keep in mind.


Rose Kent

Carrie Link said...

I LOVE Gary Paulsen! Great post!

Katrina Kenison said...

We loved Hatchet, too -- and I'd forgotten all about it. Your post makes me want to read it again, except that there's no little boy here to bounce up and down on the sofa. How wonderful that you take this time and treasure these moments. Yesterday, I bought a beautiful Christmas book for a little nephew, The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson. I needed someone to share it with. "Pretend you're six," I said to my husband. "I don't need to pretend," he answered. And so, we sat together, hubby and I, and I read out loud to my grown up guy. Gotta say, that was sweet too.

Anonymous said...

Great post! What books do you recommend?