Books At The Table, Please

Monday, May 25, 2009

One of the most amusing aspects of motherhood so far has been discovering the difference between my untested fantasy of what my family life would be like and the reality of what it is.  

For a long time, this was particularly true when it came to the dinner table - not the food, but the conversation.

In my pre-children fantasy, we would be like a scaled down version of the Kennedy-Shriver clan.  Every night, we'd assemble as a family to break bread and share in turn what each of us had done that day to make the world a better place.  We'd engage in deep and penetrating analysis of weighty issues, such as the Middle East peace process or the effects of climate change on world hunger and migration patterns.  Somehow, I always pictured myself with a bouffant.  And pearls.  The children would be perfectly mannered and serene, with crisp white napkins folded neatly across their laps.  There would even be a pull-down map of the world, complete with pointer, ready for spontaneous illustration of key arguments. 

In this fantasy, no one ever used the pointer to hit his brother on the head, or pretended to stick it up his nose.  Or worse, his bottom.  Or, worse still, his brother's bottom.

As I said, it was a fantasy.

The reality of our family life at the dinner table is, you'll be shocked to learn, slightly different.  

Every week, Monday through Friday, the boys and I assemble at the fashionable hour of 5:30 p.m. for protein and vegetables, while CB continues to slug it out in the big smoke.  With a thirty minute commute between school and home, I've already squeezed out whatever morsels of information they are inclined to share (or remember) about their day long before we hit the table.  And with little news left to explore and scant interest in making polite conversation, for a long while discussion tended to slide into a steady litany of criticism and instruction from me.

"Sit in your seat."
"Don't tilt your chair back."
"No wandering around with food in your hand."
"Do you think that shirt is a tea towel?!  Use your napkin!"
"Drink your milk."
"Don't tilt your chair back."
"Don't fill up on milk, you'll have no room for the vegetables."
"Don't play with your food."
"You haven't touched your food."
"said don't tilt your chair back."
"Don't touch your brother."
"Wipe your hands on your napkin before you run them through your hair!"

Not fun.

And then I read an article while sitting alone in a doctor's waiting room (stolen moments of bliss) about a woman whose father had been a traveling salesman.  With two small girls, a dinner hour's worth of conversational void to fill, and a persistent lack of adult company, this woman's clever mother turned to the classics and filled their evenings with Melville, Dickens, and Shakespeare.  Not bad dinner partners.  

This got me thinking.

Long before becoming a mother, I had harbored another fantasy about my imagined family's life.  In it, I would relive the joy of all my favorite childhood classics with the children I loved.  Together, we'd share adventures of the imagination and spirit, and I'd fill them up with my love for books, and words, and stories, and storytelling.   

This fantasy, it turns out, was not so far fetched.  And it did not require a bouffant.   True, in my dream I was always reading on the edge of a bed, but perhaps a slight adjustment was in order.

Now, every weeknight, three places are set at our table: two with plates and cups and utensils, and one with a glass of water and a book.  

For the forty minutes that follow, give or take a few trips to the kitchen for more milk or a forgotten napkin, or, praise the Lord, a second helping, we read.  

The boys sit and listen with their eyes on me and their forks and mouths on autopilot.  This approach may not do much towards cultivating either their social graces or their appreciation of food.  There is still plenty of fidgeting and chairs regularly rear back on two legs.  And at the end of the meal I sometimes find myself wondering whether more food reached their bellies or the floor.

But there is also adventure, excitement, and fantasy of the very best kind.  Their plates are piled high with the lyricism of glorious, magical words - words with the power to conjure up whole worlds, filled with people, places, ideas, hopes, fears and dreams.  Not a bad diet.  There is discussion - so much that we often have to call a time out so that we can get back to the story and finish our chapter before bath time.  And there is also a performance (for reading aloud is nothing less), often as raucous as anything they've thrown at me, that is the best part of my day and, I hope, one of the best bits of theirs.

And this reality is better than anything I ever could have imagined.

Our Dinner Table Reading Routine
Dickens will not be making an appearance at our table anytime soon - he'll have to wait in a long que behind Enid Blyton, E.B. White, Roald Dahl and many, many others.  

Because DB is four years old, I try to steer towards books that have bite-sized chapters and plenty of illustrations.  We also pause frequently to recap and discuss what we've just read - what are the characters doing?  what choices are they making?  what would we do in their position?  what do we think will happen next? 

These intervals, combined with the activity of eating and a dose of acting on my part, keep our youngest completely engaged, making even very long books enjoyable for everyone.  Picture books we save for bedtime, when DB and I will read two or three in some quiet time together, before Will and I go off, just the two of us, to read a chapter of whatever novel he's selected for our 'reading date', as he calls it.

What We Are Reading Now
At the moment, we are positively enthralled with The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton.  It all began when the boys fished CB's childhood copy (below) off the shelf and we are not looking back.  I am under strict instructions to go to the book shop and pick up the third installment today.

To me, Enid Blyton was a revelation (I don't recall hearing of her as a child and the jacket of Chris's 1970s edition suggests that her books were published in England, Canada  and Australia, but not the United States), but I've been advised by the school librarian that, in Australia, they are positively a right of passage.  

First published in 1942, the books chronicle the adventures of four cousins and their dog in a world that seems straight out of The Dangerous Book For Boys.  Treasure maps, pocket knives, boat rides, and midnight escapades feature largely, all with little or no adult supervision.  Heaven!   The language is wonderfully quirky, full of the slang of the period.  Remarkably, the boys never seem to bat an eye at expressions like "queer", "Old Boy", "good chap", or "she's a real brick."  I love it.  

A final note: If you do go in search of these, please be sure to select The Classic Edition.  There is a modernized version featuring the same language but different illustrations but, in my view, without Eileen A. Soper's original drawings, the books would loose half their charm.  Some things just can't be improved upon.

Happy reading!  

And don't tilt your chair.


  1. So popular in our house too - all the children are so polite to eachother and sometimes, just sometimes this rubs off between siblings too!
    For some fantasy check out The Magic Faraway Tree also by inspired many happy hours in our treehouse when I was small.

  2. what a sweet charming book; i enjoy reading your memoirs. thank you for the kind words on my blog. you made my day.

  3. Another great blog, Kate.

    The Magic Faraway Tree books are a must. D and H will sit for ages listening to and talking about them. They will definitely give you many more happy hours at tea time. If like D you will get to the end of the book, only to be asked to start reading it again!

  4. Kate I loved this Post!!! I have a total visual of you and the boys sitting there reading at dinner and talking about the book at hand. You paint such a great picture! A far cry from the yellow stools at 15 Bayard and hiding carrots over bone dry chicken! ha ha xoxo


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