Years ago, my four-year-old granddaughter picked a 10-inch by 10-inch colorful book from her overflowing bookshelf. She jumped with it, cuddled up to me and we snuggled together.
We studied the smiling boy on the cover of If I Built a House by Maine author and illustrator, Chris Van Dusen. I asked, “See the face of the dog? What do you think that dog is imagining?”
She fingered the corners and edges of the page. She said, “Let’s go. Open the book. Turn the page.”
I opened to the inside cover page and pointed, “See this? A funky chimney.”
She repeated, “Let’s get going. Turn the page.”
We began. I knew enough to skip the title page, no doubt also of no interest to her, though Jack, the main character, at a picnic table with tools, pencils, Legos, tinker toys and scotch tape, fascinated me.
At first, I read as adults read, speaking aloud the letters and words, finishing rhymes, turning pages, and rolling onto the next stanza. We learned about young Jack and his boundless enthusiasm for invention. At the page with his all-in-one Kitchen-o-Mat, I flipped to the next page, to his living room trampoline and giant ball pit. My granddaughter grabbed my hand and reversed to the previous page.
“Look in his kitchen. They have pizza,” she said.
Ready to move on, I said, “uh-huh, and on the next page there’s a really cool room.”
She flattened the pizza page and pointed to a painting of a bowl filled with what looked like tan dough with little brown dots. Her eyes lit up, “Wait! Do you think it’s chocolate chip cookies?”
I pushed toward bedtime, “I don’t know. Let’s turn the page.”
She insisted, “Not yet. Look. Jack’s having a cheeseburger and French fries. Do you like cheeseburgers and French fries?”
I looked at my watch and spewed curtly, “No.”
“I do,” she said.
My mind raced. My stomach clutched. I had lost the miraculous power of reading aloud to kids, the way kids want, the way kids love, sometimes stopping, sometimes forging forward.
When we arrived at the page with the huge bedroom on top of a 200-foot tower, I pointed to the glass surrounding it all. She pointed to a tiny drawing, a woman and a dog on the sidewalk looking up at the sky and this flying room. She asked, “Do you think this lady is the dog’s owner?”
Realizing that she would enjoy the book exactly as she wanted, I surrendered to the pace of pleasure, sunk into just these words, just these pictures, and slowed my words, “hmm…What do you think? She could be a dog-walker?”
She shook her head, “No, dog walkers don’t dress fancy like that.”
“Maybe it’s a grandmother visiting.”
She cozied up. “Susu, do you think her dress is red or pink? I can’t tell.”
Now, here in this enchanted time together, I smiled, “I don’t know but I like those polka dots. Do you?”
So it went. We read and paused. We chatted and connected, curious about Jack, his dog, his mother. She asked, “Does the mom look happy in this picture?”
This delightful child hadn’t stalled to delay bedtime, as I first suspected. Her questions weren’t ridiculous. She was teaching an adult patience and that books should be read with joy, laughter and the vitality of savoring what’s on the page, at the pace of the listener, at the pace of pleasure, at the pace of presence.