January 10th, 2007

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Once More With Feeling

Lately, when one of my daughters physically mauls or maims the other – be it in a blameless bunkbed accident or a purposeful fit of rage – the hurter ends up crying harder than the hurtee.

These aren’t tears for fear of consequence 'though I’m familiar with those, too. (I remember wailing after my sister as she ran toward home to tell about the big kids unjustly clobbering the little ones in a snowball fight.) Nothin’ like the sorrow of being badly busted. We’ve seen our fair share of that kind of ‘remorse’ around here, too.

But these tears of late? They’re genuinely pained distress signals, the awful clarity that comes with the caption “I-can’t-believe-I’ve-hurt-my-sister.” And as sad as it is to witness, I find some solace in the palpable human empathy between them.

There’s debate about whether we all come equipped with an empathic heart or whether it needs teaching, and I think I’ll let the social scientists hash that one out. But one thing I know for certain is that books are the perfect proving ground. There is safety in feeling deeply for the folks we read about; it’s a risk-free way to love and worry, grieve and celebrate. So we do – with less reserve than we might in stickier, more personal situations – and, as a result, we come out the other side with more practiced hearts.

I remember way back, tucking into my parents’ bed for another chapter of Little House, only to be put on hold as the reader, my mother, stopped to cry – for Mary, for Laura, for the bulldog. We’d stare and nudge and sometimes giggle as she gathered herself and began again. 

I'd stopped the nudging and the giggles by the time I read National Velvet, Deenie, Misty of Chincotegue, Anne Frank. The list could run waist deep, I assure you.

Later, when I met my future husband, one of our first important synchronicities was the discovery that we’d both wept over Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows.

What I know now – what I learned in my mother’s bed – is that crying (or laughing) over books is a way of saying, “I’m in tune with the human condition, with the state of the birds and the bees, with this writer and all of her readers. I am in tune with you (daughter, lover, student, son).”

What an affirmation.

So, on that note, I offer up a sinfully short list of some of the good laughs and cries around our house lately:


Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery – We were on an airplane when Matthew Cuthbert died and my god, they almost had to drop the oxygen masks for us.

Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim – I’m not going to give away the punch but it’s tender and requires a couple of tissues, to be sure.

Togo, by Robert J. Blake – Did you know the Iditarod sled race commemorates a treacherous serum run made during a diphtheria epidemic in Alaska? Me neither. This is just one of the myriad dog stories out there that’ll get you straight between the eyes.

Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, by Kathi Appelt – That part where a young LBJ sends Ladybird a love-letter and she is “dazzled”? Golly.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea, by Amy Hest – Toil and troubles, true love, a good grandmother and a happy ending. What else do you need?


Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater and Florence Atwater – This book about a housepainter and his penguins is hilarious. But don’t take my word for it. Read it. Aloud.

At the Hotel Larry, by Daniel Pinkwater and Jill Pinkwater – Utterly absurd. I literally could not catch my breath for laughing the first time I read one of the Larry books.

Judy and the Volcano, by Wayne Harris – The teacher’s name is “Mrs. Be-the-best-you-can.” Need I say more?

Double Whammies

I can’t help it. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books and all of Kevin Henkes’ picture books make me mist up and, a moment later, laugh out loud, every single time. Praises be!

So, what’re you reading???