The Next Chapter: Reading with My Sons During My Divorce

The Next Chapter: Reading with My Sons During My Divorce

During a difficult time, Ben Railton struggled to share one of his favorite childhood books with his sons, a reading experience that bonded them in unexpected ways.

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It would have been easy to stop. It was only a couple months after the separation, after I had moved into my own place, after we had begun this every-other-week shared custody schedule, and I was still walking on eggshells with the boys all the time, trying so hard not to do anything to upset them. So when, on our second night of reading Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix, as I was about to begin Chapter Two, my younger son expressed serious unhappiness with the selection—the book is from 1957 and its prose style certainly feels like it, particularly in the more expository opening chapters—I was very tempted to put down David in favor of something I knew both he and his brother would enjoy.

The Next Chapter: Reading with My Sons During My DivorceI’d like to say that I kept reading instead out of some wise and mature parenting perspective, a recognition that the world isn’t always going to give in to their demands and that they have to learn patience with those moments that don’t give immediate gratification, that sort of thing. But the truth is more basic and more selfish than that: David was probably my single favorite book from childhood, the one work that more than any other had opened up what reading and imagination can offer us, and I just really wanted to share it, all of it, with my boys. It’s not in print or widely available these days, but I had managed to get hold of a copy through our town library’s inter-library loan program, and now darn it I was going to read it to them.

So keep reading I did. And the while the transformation wasn’t immediate, and wasn’t without its continued whines, it came nonetheless. The book’s humor and whimsy, its adventures and creatures, the budding friendship and then love between its title characters, the threat of the scientist and the plans through which he is countered, they all worked their magic on the boys, as I had known—no, as I had fervently hoped—they would. By the bittersweet but beautiful end, there were tears in their eyes, the first time a book had made them feel so strongly. (There were also tears in mine, but since something makes me cry, from joy or sadness or frustration or exhaustion or sadness or joy, about twice a day with the boys, that’s not quite as noteworthy.)

It was a big moment for the three of us, our David experience. Big because it marked our transition to chapter books, to multi-night readings of long stories that keep us hooked and coming back for more. Big because it was the first time the boys fell in love with something that they knew I had likewise once loved as a kid, and so had that kind of connection across time to their Dad and to the past that helps build and deepen a sense of identity, individual as well as familial. And big because we didn’t stop, didn’t give in to the unhappiness, pushed past it toward all the adventures and mysteries and bittersweet beauties waiting for us in the next chapter.

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Credit: Image—ShashiBellamkonda/Flickr

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About Ben Railton

Ben Railton's most important job is as the dad to his 8 and 7 year old sons. But he's also proud to be a professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University, the author of three books including most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Teach Us About America, a daily blogger at http://americanstudier.blogspot.com, and a dedicated Tweeter at @AmericanStudier.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the article, Just wanted to mention that “David and the Phoenix” is available on project Gutenberg, so finding it to read is no problem. There is also a link at the bottom of the Wikipedia article.
    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27922

  2. Wonderful, Ben. The process of reading is so very important between parents and children. It is a personal space that encourages contact, focus, imagination and mutual appreciation. In the context of a divorce, it can also offer continuity to a time before and say to all parties, we can continue building memories and shared moments into this new future. We are still a family. We are still in connection and discovery.

  3. Thanks guys! Josh, that’s really good to know; reading it in hard copy was really important with the boys, but it’s very cool that folks have the ability to find the book that way now. And Mark, I couldn’t agree more.

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