It’s No Myth: Fathers and Sons Who Read (and Write) Together Can Grow Together

May 18, 2010

in Bookish Babble

Sometimes, the best way to learn something about yourself is to make a connection with someone else.

I suspect my wife and oldest daughter understand this. Over the past several years, they have developed a close relationship in an unlikely way — by reading books. Most moms and their girls pal up over other, more traditional activities, like shopping for shoes or cooking. And though this pair shares those interests, their bond over books is strongest, right now.

It all started with the first Harry Potter, when Anna was 9 or so. They took turns reading it one summer, discussing it at length, loaning it to their friends, and, eventually, rereading it prior to the movie’s release. They cruised likewise through each subsequent volume in the series, as it was published, and never let up. They’ve since progressed to other similar fantasy books, including the Twilight cycle, and more. I suspect (and hope) that their hobby has become a habit that will continue for many years to come.

To be honest, I’ve always felt a twinge of jealousy over this relationship. Although I haven’t had much interest in the books they’ve read — and wouldn’t want to intervene for fear of changing the dynamics — I have relished the thought of sharing a similar experience.

My son, Will, my likely partner, had never shown enough interest in books to make this happen. He was too young to be swept up by the first wave of Hogwarts hogwash, and though I read the first few books to him at bedtime, he never developed an affinity for any of it. He has always enjoyed having me read books to him, especially adventure stories, and we’ve devoured quite a few over the years — everything from Treasure Island and the Hardy Boys series to The Bones on Black Spruce Mountain by David Budbill and The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater. All terrific books, mind you, but it’s not the same kind of give-and-take affair.

Occasionally a book has caught his attention, such as Dave Barry’s fluffy Peter and The Starcatchers or the lightweight Wimpy Kid diaries, and even more challenging novels, such as Go Big or Go Home, which he liked so much he wrote about it here. But he has struggled with reading, for many reasons, and so, few books seem to inspire him enough to invest his free time, or to involve me, in the way that Potter did it for Anna and Amy.

Until now, that is. Early this year, Will discovered The Lightning Thief, the first in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. And suddenly his attitude toward reading was transformed, in epic proportions, from apathy to absorption. His only struggle involved putting the book down, no matter the time of day, and he practically raced to finish it in time for the release of the movie — in fact, he declared (older-sister-style) that the family could not go see the film version over spring break until he had read all 375 pages. (He did finish it in time, by the way, and we did all go to the movie, which we thoroughly enjoyed.) Best of all, he decided to conquer the whole series, on his own, and asked me to join him.

You may be wondering (as I was, at first), what’s the hook? What made such a difference? Well, there are several causes I can point to, after having read the book and seen it adapted for the big screen. For one thing, Rick Riordan, the author, creates a fast-paced, fresh and funny take on the quintessential hero’s quest. Think Harry Potter meets Greg Heffley. It’s magical and mysterious, hip and humorous. What’s not to like about that?

Also, and this is important personally for Will and for me, Percy (whose full name is Perseus) has to deal with some learning and behavioral issues — for instance, he struggles with reading and sometimes experiences “moments,” as he says, “when my brain falls asleep or something and the next thing I know I’ve missed something, as if a puzzle piece fell out of the universe and left me staring at the blank place behind it.” As it turns out, Percy’s disabilities stem from the fact that he was born a demi-god, the child of a mortal woman and a Greek god — one of “the big three,” in fact — so he is better equipped for the ancient world than his own.

Sadly my own issues are far more pedestrian, though no less surprising, at least to Will. My confession to him, when agreeing to our mini “book club,” that I am a tediously slow reader was an eye-opener. He assumed that, because I have made a career out of reading and writing, I would speed past him as we moved through the series together. Truth is, my natural word-for-word pace is slower than average. In other words, I read every word — sometimes more than once — and only partly because I have to. Am I a slow reader because of my profession, or did I find a job that suits my, well, abilities? I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s what I do and I like it this way. It’s an occupational hazard, yes, but it has put the two of us on a level playing field.

However, I think the biggest reason that Will and I have been captivated by the adventures of Percy and his pals is the author’s use of Greek mythology to tell his tale of heroism. Sure, plenty of heroes (super and otherwise) have occupied Will’s world over the years: everything from comic books about Superman, Batman and Spider-man, to the “Rescue Heroes” dolls he played with for hours as a little boy, to his obsession with the Star Wars trilogies, and, lately, to the sports heroes he talks about as if they were his companions. But all of these characters, real or imagined, are drawn, directly or indirectly, from the sources that fill the pages of the Percy Jackson books.

As any faithful Scribbleskiff reader knows, the Greek myths are my Achilles heel. (Pun intended, and here’s a reason why.) They are some of the oldest stories in the civilized world and they are packed with enough meaning and possibility to be as relevant and useful in Homer’s world as they are in Homer Simpson’s. In other words, mythology is the stuff that little boys (of any age) are made of.

And this distinction must have contributed to Will’s low interest in the Potter books. A story about adolescent wizards flying around on brooms and conjuring spells is fantastically (and lucratively) entertaining, for sure, but their world is make-believe and exists outside the realm of “real life.” On the other hand, reading about how a relatively normal kid must learn to live with his troubling legacy (he is not “just your average son of Poseidon,” after all), as well as the discovery that his disabilities are actually his strengths, must be more universally meaningful and gratifying.

At least it is to me. And to Will, who is clearly enjoying our voyage of discovery. He is already way ahead of me and has reached the point where he’ll say, “Dad, wait till you get to the part where [such-and-such] happens…” And when I ask, “Why, what’s going to happen?” He’ll simply reply, smiling slyly, “You’ll have to read it for yourself.” Sometimes, and this is most exciting to me, he’ll ask, “Where are you now? Did you get to the part about the blue food?” And I’ll say, “Will, there’s no blue food.” “Sure there is, Dad,” he’ll say confidently. Then he’ll flip my book open, thumb through a few pages, and with total recall point to one small paragraph early in a book he read three books ago and say, “here, see?” Will’s eagerness to lead, and my desire to follow, is proving to be the most palpable benefit of our new partnership.

All this talk of fathers and sons and books and mythology has caused me to reconsider a volume of poetry I received earlier this year but only partially read. And it’s caused me to reconsider the notion of relationships in general.

Called My Minotaur, the book is actually a collaboration between Keith Holyoak, a translator and poet, and his son Jim, an artist. (You can read more about the book, including an excerpt, here.) My Minotaur seemed intriguing, not only for the title and enigmatic cover, but also for the idea of it: combining poems and illustrations. It can be a potentially rewarding endeavor that, unfortunately, rarely pays off. Quite often the written work and the work of art (say, photography) are created separately and thus have little in common when commingled. The result can be inspiring but incoherent.

But that’s not the case here. The Holyoaks worked together to create this book, and nearly every tightly crafted, often terse poem sits opposite an equally skillful illustration. More important, many of the poems and drawings show a direct correlation, as with “In the Damp Cellar,” a brief poem of four couplets that is rendered by the artist as a stack of books, with each pair of lines written on the spines. It’s an effective way of giving greater depth to an otherwise brief experience. The same holds true with “Portrait of Jesse Villareal,” a narrative poem about two artists encountering, mingling with and interpreting the same subject matter (you can listen to and watch that encounter on this video): The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In other instances, where the ties between the visual and literal are much harder to discern and more open to imagination, the works still seem to sprout from the same source of inspiration. These poems and illustrations interact with and react to each other on the page, rather than simply coexisting across the expanse of whiteness between them. And that is the source of their power and beauty.

This to me serves as the perfect metaphor for any good relationship, father-and-son or otherwise — especially one that’s collaborative (from the Latin, meaning “to toil together”) and thus becomes as varied and expressive, mysterious and linear, argumentative and harmonious, etc., as any of the entries in this handsome book.

I didn’t fully appreciate My Minotaur until I began my own literary relations with my son, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps the experience of interacting with Will for a common cause — his newfound interest in books, for instance — got me thinking, about the benefits of reading books, the importance of family ties, the necessity of coactivity, and so on. And maybe that’s the point: cooperation can lead to edification and growth. I suspect the Holyoaks would agree with this.

Right now my son and I are only co-readers. But perhaps some day soon my role with Will, who has also expressed an interest in (and shown some aptitude for) writing and creativity, will be transformed to that of co-authors, as well.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you read either of these books? What are your stories from Greek mythology? Do you think artistic collaboration is a good idea or a bad one? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Forbush May 19, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Chip, I loved this blog. Enjoy the adventure of reading with Will.

Tom May 20, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Favorite scribbleskiff post ever! I can relate on so many levels. My dad and I frequently chat over some books, although we do not really share many – I think I will (as soon as my state exam is over on June 12) try to find a series – between my mother and him ( mom gave me the book “three cups of tea” which I hope to finish soon. Thanks for a great post!

Susan Atlas June 19, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Hi Henry–

Just loved the post! It was both so personal and so universal. I admit to checking out Skribbleskiff only once in a while, but this and the music will bring me back more regularly.

Renee Boring July 4, 2010 at 12:41 am

Reading about Will’s new interest in books brought to mind the handful of students I’ve had the pleasure to watch “click” with books for the first time. I can only imagine the intensity of experiencing this with your own son, and better yet, having it open a shared world. May it lead on to many, many more books and collaborations.

I read The Lightning Thief after hearing my nephew talk non-stop about the series, and specifically the details of Greek mythology, when we spent a week together. It was great to hear him so passionate about it. The right book at the right time is a powerful thing.

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