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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In which the Wicked Wedgie Woman steals my dreams of family literacy

LG, though he, like the children of everybody else I know, clearly belongs to the race of children who are Above Average, is not reading yet. Normal, I know. These days, being able to read when one starts kindergarten isn't the sign of freakish intelligence that it was when I was in kindergarten, but it's certainly not the majority of kids who start school already learning to read, not even here in the privileged, lily-white suburbs of the highly educated Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

So I'm generally being OK with him not being able to read yet, though -- all right, I'll admit it -- I sometimes worry that he's going to get around to it with the same (lack of) urgency that he expended on certain other age-appropriate milestones. (Cough ****potty training**** cough.) What bums me out in a more profound and specific way is that LG still, at age five, has no interest whatsoever in chapter books.

We read aloud, sure. We read picture books aloud, including some fairly technical nonfiction that he seems to enjoy. We've been reading easy-readers out loud for a year or two now; the Cynthia Rylant series books and Commander Toad are his favorites. But real chapter books? Borrrrrrrring.

I've tried, I really have. I've tried reading some of my own childhood favorites; I've tried reading books that I'd never heard of until I was an adult. I thought The Boxcar Children was sure to be a winner -- kids who live in a train and solve a mystery? How cool is that? Not so cool, as it turns out. LG lost interest about a third of the way into the book and walked away, never to so much as inquire about it again. (I completely don't understand this. I am the sort of person who gets so consumed by narrative anxiety that I have to skip to the last chapter just to keep myself from spontaneously combusting. How can he walk away from a book in the middle and NOT EVEN CARE HOW IT TURNS OUT???)

I'll try anything at least once if I think it will promote a little more advanced literacy around here. So the last time I was at a used-book fundraising sale and saw a volume in the Captain Underpants series, I scarfed it up immediately. I figured it had everything going for it: gross references to bodily functions, broad humor, comic illustrations. I bought it for fifty cents and stuck it on a shelf. On of the things I've finally learned about LG is that if there is to be any hope of interesting him in a book, it has to be his idea to read it. Someday, I thought, when the stars are properly aligned, I'll pull out my ace in the hole: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. That will turn him into a literacy freak for life!

As it happened, the stars aligned this past weekend. I was taking an old Physicians' Desk Reference down off a high shelf (so that Baby Blue could use it on top of the bathroom stool -- she still can't reach the sink, but she's closer, thanks to the pharmacopea of modern medicine), and that required rearranging all the books that had been laying horizontally on the formerly full shelf. When I pulled down the handful of young-reader books (most of which I had acquired for my own reading pleasure), LG sat up and focused with keen attention.

"What is that?" he asked.

"Oh," I said breezily. "That's a Captain Underpants book. I got it at the book sale awhile ago."

"Wow," he said. "We have those in our school library."

"Yeah?" I said. "Cool."

"Can we read it?" he asked.

You bet we could. Mr. Blue and Baby Blue were out, so LG and I snuggled on the couch and dove into Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. He was intrigued. He was entranced. He thought that the only thing funnier than having a "Wear Your Pajamas to School and Pick Your Nose" Day was that the awful teacher's favorite ice cream flavor was tofu-chunk. (OK, we both laughed immoderately at the tofu-chunk ice cream. What is it about the word "tofu" that can inspire hilarity even in the most gentle of herbivores?)

Soon Mr. Blue and Baby Blue arrived home, and were drawn in by the spell of Captain Underpants. We all sat like a dream of family togetherness, giggling at snot jokes on the couch while I read aloud. I was beside myself with glee. "I've finally done it!" I told myself. "I've finally made them all into readers!"

Then it happened.

After a few minutes, Harold sat up quickly and looked around.

"Hey!" he whispered. "What's that noise?"

"I didn't hear anything," said George.

They listened closely.

"Shhhh!" said Harold. "There it is again!"

George heard it this time. He reached over and opened the tree house door a crack. All they could hear was the sound of crickets chirping in the night. George opened the door wider, and the boys peeked down.

I turned the page.


LG screamed, buried his head in his daddy's chest, and burst into tears. When he could speak again -- it took a couple of minutes to calm him down enough to allow speech -- he gasped, "Mama! That's too scary for me!"

Yeah. Bedtime was, as you might expect, filled with more tears and earnest discussions of the absolute fictionality of the Wicked Wedgie Woman.

The book itself has been placed back on top the high shelf, with a bookmark lodged in between pages 86 and 87. Because hope springs eternal in the human breast.

But for right now, we'll be sticking with picture books and Henry and Mudge. While my dreams of family literacy lie like sleeping dogs, twitching anxiously, and listening for the fearsome arrival of the Wicked Wedgie Woman.

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