The code word of the weekend is minimum effort. Whatever it takes to get through Saturday and Sunday with a rambunctious, rocket-powered toddler and two wrung-out, sick parents. Whether it’s ice cream for breakfast or dinner in front of the TV, if a token effort to dissuade the wee beastie isn’t working, I am taking the path of least resistance.
This means activities that Hawkeye can do on the floor while I observe from my within-arm’s-reach couch sprawl, or that we can do on the bed together, cuddled up on top of the duvet with my mountain of pillows. This boils down to two main activities that can keep his attention but don’t make him hyper 1) jigsaw puzzles and 2) reading. Hawkeye, as it happens, has really taken to jigsaw puzzles again after taking a break and he’s now assembling the basic ones easily enough that we are putting them away and pulling out the ages 3+ puzzles. The last two weeks I’ve been assembling, disassembling, and reassembling the Hungry Caterpillar and a floor animal puzzle so often that I could probably attempt them together blindfolded. I decided, this morning, that a token trip outside could at the same time help my sanity if we could find something new to add to this rotation. So we took a very short stroll to the local kids charity shop where I soothed my sickness-induced misery with some cheap retail therapy. I found a Winnie the Pooh puzzle that’s just the right difficulty for him and something else to stash away until he’s a little bit older.
Then, while Robin made a beeline for the bin full of toy cars, I hit the bookshelves.
I am finding myself cycling through generational phases of book consumption. I mean, I love books. I grew up in a house full of books. I don’t even remember learning how to read, but some of my earliest memories revolve around reading, either alone or with my parents. I have books at home in the States, and I have books at home in Ireland, and I can’t ever imagine living somewhere where I don’t have books.
Problem is that I’m finding less and less time to read them, and having a baby (shockingly!) has not helped with this. I actually can’t remember the last time I read a full length paper book from cover to cover that wasn’t What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Part of that is because I’ve been reading on my phone or a tablet for a number of years now. I wasn’t happy about giving up good old paper, but at some point it just became more convenient. If it’s a choice between reading on an electronic device and not reading at all, obviously I’m going to go with reading, whatever the format.
But that doesn’t work with kids. First of all, there is only so much screen time I am willing to give him. And it’s not like we’re in a rush to give him digital skills – he’ll have a lifetime to master those. Reading real books means he’s not stuck in front a screen, he is learning finer motor skills by turning pages, he is spending time with me or with his father… the benefits are endless. So while I may be sneaking some trashy kindle novel on my phone whenever Hawkeye’s not watching for mental-downtime, I’m also assiduously encouraging him to read with us at any and all opportunity.
This has led me to go even further old school and return to using a public library. I have spent a lot of my life in libraries. The library in my middle school was a refuge from unpleasant classmates. In high school I worked at the circulation desk in our school library to earn spending spending money. I have spent many hours reading and writing in college libraries, from Washington to London, culminating with a wonderful opportunity to do research for my Masters dissertation in Dublin’s Trinity College Library.
Aaaaand I haven’t really been back since. Another victim of the technological twenty first century until I had a baby. Now, the library is once again a part of our life and it’s like coming back to an old friend. First of all, it’s financially sensible – kids books aren’t cheap these days, at least not the good ones. And they lose interest in them quickly. Also, there’s just no accounting for toddler taste. I imagine this is a precursor for pretty much every battle of wills over clothes, activities, food, companions, classes, and so forth that my son and I will have in the future. Just because I, with my life experience and accumulated wisdom, have an opinion on what constitutes a good toddler book, doesn’t mean that it holds any weight with Hawkeye. This has, on occasion, even led us to employ underhanded tactics of hiding certain books that were endangering our sanity. So the library is a much safer way to test the waters without commitment.
Having said that, sometimes you learn to recognise the winning formula. Or else you’ve maxed out the number of times you can renew a book but Hawkeye is still pulling it off the shelf every other day making you read it. So when I was going through the bookshelves in the charity shop I didn’t have an exact title in mind, but it was one of those – I’ll know it when I see it situations.
In the end I struck gold with two Donaldson/Scheffler books which we actually currently have on loan from the library and which are proving popular, and completely unexpectedly I came across a Mem Fox book in excellent condition that I have never heard of before.
Mem Fox was my introduction to good baby books. Early after Hawkeye was born, my mother sent me a copy of her Time for Bed, and from about 5 months or so, it was the book. We read it religiously every night. For months. It was an essential part of our bed time routine. I could recite it backwards and forwards. Sometimes I made the animal noises, other times I blitzed through it in monotone, and yet other times we would only hit some of the pages if Hawkeye was particularly cranky.
At some point, even the amazing lyrical quality of Fox’s simple rhymes began to drive me slowly demented and I knew I needed to introduce some new material. But I didn’t go too far. In the bookstore I found another Mem Fox book, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, and that joined our rotation. For a long time, Hawkeye actually refused to let us introduce any new books into the routine. I even had nightmares of still reading the same two volumes with him at ages 2, 3, 4 and so on.
Eventually he allowed us to move on, but my love for Mem Fox stayed. So when I pulled out a book and glimpsed her name on the cover I didn’t even pause to look inside. I just put it straight on the counter in my ‘to buy’ pile.
I suspect, from the imprint, that this book was actually purchased in Australia and brought to Ireland as a gift before being outgrown and deposited in the charity shop. Honestly, its mint condition makes me think maybe it was just not appreciated much at all. And from the very first page of Possum Magic I realised that this is definitely a book Mem Fox wrote for her native Australian audience, not for the commercial world wide consumption. And the second thing I realised is that this book REALLY needs to be read with a proper Australian accent, which I can’t do. I mean, I’m hopeless at accents. I didn’t even try. But in my head, every word that came out of my mouth echoed with impressions I recalled of various Australian celebrities, ,from the stand-up comedian Adam Hill, to the late, larger-than-life, Steve Irwin, to one of the Mister’s cousins-by-marriage.
The book was as magical as I knew a Mem Fox book would be. When Hawkeye is a little bit older I will have to put up a world map and show him where Australia is. After all, he does have family there. I might pass up a vegemite tasting session, but I certainly look forward to explaining to him the origin of Anzac biscuits. And maybe the two of us can look up what lambington is, because I actually have no idea. I might let it stay a mystery for me so that Hawkeye and I can learn about it together.
There have been a lot of trials and hardships since we had a baby. But also many joyous things, and I count rediscovering my love of books and libraries to be one of those things.