Reading to Henry before bed has been a ritual at our house since he was a baby, when it was Goodnight Moon every night. At some point he started choosing other picture books to read, grabbing a library book or an old favorite from his collection.
A few months ago Henry learned that the books with the Disney-fied version of Winnie-the-Pooh were based on actual chapter books, and he wanted me to read them to him. I thought the books might be too difficult or too dull for him, but I agreed to read a chapter or two a night before bed.
I'm sure some of the writing was over Henry's head, particularly Eeyore's dialogue. I was surprised to discover that the donkey in the original Pooh books is not merely gloomy, but also extremely sarcastic. For instance, when the characters are trying to figure out how to get Tigger and Roo out of the tree, Piglet suggests that Pooh stand on Eeyore's back and Piglet stand on Pooh's shoulders. Eeyore cuts him off mid-sentence with, "And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way...but not really helpful."
And after Tigger bounces Eeyore into the river and the rest of them are trying to figure out how to get him out, Pooh says, "I've got a sort of idea...but I don't suppose it's a very good one." Eeyore replies, "I don't suppose it is either."
Pooh's idea is to throw rocks into the river next to Eeyore in the hopes that the waves created will wash Eeyore to shore. Piglet asks, anxiously, "Supposing we hit him by mistake?" and Eeyore replies, "Or supposing you missed him by mistake. Think of all the possibilities, Piglet, before you settle down to enjoy yourselves."
In any case Henry loved Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and wanted to continue with chapter books. This was an exciting development for me, because I love love love to read. I was a kid who craved nothing more than to get lost in a book for an afternoon. I have so many favorites that feel like old friends and I'm eager to introduce Henry to them.
We moved on to Socks by Beverly Cleary, and again, Henry followed along intently. After that we started the Ramona the Pest books and then the Henry Huggins series, also by Beverly Cleary.
Henry seemed to really enjoy the books, asking questions and talking about them during the day. But it wasn't until we started the last book in the Henry Huggins series that I realized how into the books Henry really was. In the first chapter of Ribsy Henry Huggins' dog gets lost and isn't found until the very end of the book. Almost every night my Henry was bouncing around the bed with fear and concern that Ribsy would never find his way home again. It reminded me of how I watch suspenseful movies, with my hands mostly over my eyes.
After that we started Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Henry loved it, as I thought he would, but although I knew that the spider died in the end, I had not calculated just how distraught Henry would get. I started to read about her death and his face screwed up and tears spilled out of his eyes. "Why does Charlotte have to die?" he wailed.
I finished the book, occasionally over the sound of Henry's crying, and then tried to explain that sometimes the best stories don't have a happy ending. He didn't accept that, as I suppose no young child would, and wanted to know why E.B. White couldn't have had Charlotte return to the barn after the fair and continue living. He fell asleep pulling my arm tightly against him and crying on and off.
I know I should feel terrible that Henry was in pain over Charlotte's death, and it did make me sad to see him so upset. But at the same time, I was gratified to know that a fifty-year old book about a pig and a spider could affect my four-year old so. My kid loves books, and more than that, he gets them. Because even when I suggested that we come up with an alternative happy ending, Henry told me, "It's too late. We already read it."