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.
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.
I’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.