Ruth E. Walker
True Confession: I cry in the sad parts. Tears trickle down with a good book. Louisa May Alcott’s Beth in Little Women, again and again with Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle (alternating with laughter, of course), the tiger at the end of Life of Pi.
So many books have brought me to tears. I’m also a sucker for a well-acted stage production, movie or TV show.
It’s the characters
I invest in characters. I cheer for them and I admonish them and I cry for, or with them. Of course the story matters because that’s where the characters come to life. But the most compelling actors or characters in a story won’t move me if I don’t believe in the truth of their situation.
Star Trek is a television series I’ve followed since the early days of Captain Kirk. I watched every single television incarnation or reboot. And the movies. I don’t have a room full of Trek memorabilia but until my doggie decided to chew off his leg, I did have a tiny Captain Jean-Luc Picard on my office windowsill.
I’ll admit that some of the stories are not especially well drawn. And especially in the early days of limited FX options, those alien masks were, shall we say, rudimentary?
But it’s always been the characters for me: how they act, react and yes, occasionally, over-act (sorry Bill.) Because I believe, on some level, that they are real and the situation they are facing is founded in reality.
A learning moment
A recent story-time session with my 2-year-old granddaughter Clara reminded me that characters — even non-human ones — can have an emotional impact on readers.
One of her favourite books when she comes to visit me is Snow by P.D. Eastman. It’s an early reader in the Seuss series and frankly, the text could use some work: What is snow? I do not know. I do not know what is snow. and Do you like it in your face? Oh yes, I like it anyplace. Suffice it to say, while I like repetition for word recognition, encouraging snowballs to the face is problematic. And yes, Grandma does know what is snow and explains it. But I digress.
Clara loves the book, always asks for it and so we read it. Until last weekend.
My granddaughter immerses in books. In the case of Snow, when we reach the pages where they building a snowfort and make snowballs, her fingers are all over the page, gathering imaginary snow to add to the construction.
But then we come to the snowman
At first, everything is fine. Just like every other time, she gathers the snow with the book characters, rolling each one into a three-tiered figure. Adds the glasses, pipe, coal smile and the ubiquitous hat. We turn the page.
The sun comes out.
The snowman melts into a slushy puddle.
And this time, for the first time, her face is stricken. “I don’t like it,” she says, her face now on the verge of tears. “I don’t like it,” she repeats.
What? This never happened before. Not with her. Not with any of my other grandchildren. I shift into hyper-vigilance and flip over the page. Distract her with the kids putting snowballs into the fridge freezer to keep them from melting. Suggest the snowman could go there as well.
Then I say, “We don’t have to read the snowman part again.”
Clara looks up at me, thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. But I’m pretty sure what she means is that we won’t read the book again. Ever.
Mending a broken heart
An illustration on two pages of a simple early reader book came to be absolutely real for her. And she was heartsick for the melting snowman.
It was a beautiful moment for me and a teaching one, at that. I was the learner and she, the instructor. Characters can be beloved even before words on the page are familiar.
I always thought that stories were favourites of very young children because the rhythm of the words and engaging illustrations caught their attention. But I hadn’t thought about a relationship with the characters. I thought that was something that grew as toddlers became more self-aware primary kids.
I also recognize that despite my love and frequent interaction with dozens of very young children over the years (my own, my daycare charges and my grandchildren), I had more to learn about the way story characters impact them. That even toddlers can have sufficiently developed empathy to be moved by characters.
It will be some time before I’ll be introducing Clara to Star Trek. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for additions to my children’s library at home. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.