December 8, 1999. Johnny Schramm is an unusual little boy in many ways. For one thing, he thinks he can become the best pitcher ever by learning to throw with both his right and left hand. And since he is only eleven years old, he thinks he has enough time to teach himself to be of help to the needy Indians.
For another, he thinks Beowulf and the Illiad are great stories. He also doesn’t mind studying his spelling words. He thinks trying to get a hundred percent on Mrs. Adams’ spelling tests is fun. He also likes to go into the deep dark woods, with his dogs, of course, hunting for bear.
I have been reading stories to Johnny for about ten years. The basis of my selections were simple: I wanted a good story that wouldn’t put me to sleep, and one that would prick his imagination. After all, most of them I had read dozens of times (to our three older children) before. So I stuck—pretty much—with the tried and true: Just So Stories, Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, The Jungle Book, and fairy tales, of course.
I didn’t read them too many books because I agree with Churchill that “young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food. They should not eat too much. They should chew it well.” So I kept re-reading the best. They never seemed to tire of them.
Soon after I started reading to Emily (who has just turned twenty-one), I realized that a child insists on a good rip-roaring story, with a hero who has many adventures. There has to be enough bad guys in it to make the inevitable victory of the good seem problematic and, in the end, satisfying. Sometimes the stories seemed awfully frightening and full of mystery. But I discovered that a child’s soul is a strong thing, not made out of cotton candy or porcelain.
So when the horrifying Grendel crawls out of the muck and slime, the little heart (and mine) does skip a beat in terror, but the mind compels you on, knowing that Beowulf, the warrior with superhuman strength and courage, will win in the end and save Hrothgar and Wealtheow and all the Danes . You can’t help but know that Riki-tiki-tavi will end up killing the evil Cobras and saving the boy, and you learn why all mongooses are light sleepers. You are delighted when the elephant’s child returns home from the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, with a real trunk (very ugly, but very useful) he could keep and use against his spanking tormentors. Later, we are told, all the other elephants went down to the river to borrow new noses. And no one spanked anyone anymore.
I stopped reading to Johnny about six months ago. I gave him a book to read every now then, hoping that one would engage his imagination. Nothing happened. Then I heard about the Harry Potter books. I gave it to Johnny about nine o’clock on a Summer’s evening. I said: “This looks like a pretty good book, you may want to look at it,” and sent him to bed.
I’m usually not a light sleeper. But that night—perhaps the horses were neighing or the dogs were barking—I awoke at five in the morning. I noticed that Johnny had left the light on in his room. As I was about to turn the light off, I was stunned to find that Johnny was still awake in bed, on his back, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone propped up on his chest. I asked him what in the world he thought he was doing.
He said: “Oh please, Dad, you’ve got to let me finish this.” Since he seemed to be only a few pages from the end of the three-hundred page book, I told him he could, as long as he wouldn’t tell his mother, of course. This would be our little secret.
His enthusiasm kept on. He shared the story with his friends. Indeed, he instructed me to buy another copy so he could give it to a friend for his birthday. I waited a week and bought the second volume, and he read that in two days. Then the third volume finally appeared, and he gave up sleep again. He waited a month, and then re-read all three. I couldn’t keep up with him.
But he told me the story of Harry Potter and his many adventures. He told me about the Muggles and Hagrid, the gentle giant, and Hermione Granger, and Draco Malfoy, and how Harry becomes a seeker in Quidditch, the best game since baseball.
And there is Professor McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore, who runs Hogwarts School of Wizardry. And Sirius Black, who seems to have been involved in the murder of Harry’s parents, appears.
And behind all of it is the dark looming image of the evil and dark Voldemort—whose name shouldn’t be said—and how Harry is destined to confront him.
Johnny is waiting for the fourth volume, and can’t understand why the author is taking so long in writing it. Impatient boy.
Unusual stories, for an unusual boy. It turns out there are many unusual boys (and girls) and I have heard that many have stolen a great adventure from a night’s sleep. Good for them. I remember my first theft. Good for me.