Kristin Bair O’Keeffee, whose debut novel Thirsty was recently released, has written a wonderful essay about reading to her young daughter. Thirsty is a gritty story about tenacious women and their struggle to find what makes life bearable in the face of domestic abuse, hardship, and death in a Pennsylvania mill town during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The story transports you to its time and place so well you can almost feel the grit from the steel mill as it settles on your own skin. More information about Kristin and Thirsty follows her essay.
“In the great green ______,” I read and pause, waiting for Tully, my 22-month-old daughter, to fill in the word.
“Room,” she says.
“There is a ______,” I say.
“Telephone,” she fills in.
And then without waiting for me to read the next sentence, she blurts out, “Red balloon.”
Of course, Tully’s 22-month-old pronunciations aren’t always spot-on. Room sometimes sounds a little like whoom; balloon comes out ba-oon. But every day her tongue finds the right place against her teeth or the roof of her mouth a little more often and words become clearer.
When we get to the “three little bears sitting on chairs,” Tully picks up my index finger and taps it lightly to each of the three bears, in the same way I’ve tapped her finger to the bears for the past year or so since we started reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon “One, two, three,” she says.
We continue on like this, filling in words and pointing out favorite objects (the mouse, the bunny, the cow jumping over the moon, and lately, the fireplace). As Tully acquires more vocabulary (at a crazily rapid pace), our nighttime readings grow longer and become more like conversations.
“What’s this?” I ask.
Tully looks at where my finger is pointing. “Hand,” she says.
“Close,” I say. “It’s a mitten.” And then I explain about mittens and hands and winter and cold weather.
Tully—with her steel-trap toddler brain fired up, even as she relaxes against me—listens intently. “Mitten,” she repeats, emphasizing the t sound. “Mitten, mitten, mitten.” And I know that she will remember this word forever. In fact, the next day she will insist that her beloved friends Baby, McGillicutty, and Dora all need mittens. “Cold,” she will tell me as she feels their hands.
I love these long, drawn-out minutes of our day with Tully snug in her pajamas, curled on my lap. The curtains are pulled. Tully has had her bath and bottle. Her teeth are brushed, and she’s given her dad a goodnight kiss. The only thing left is our nightly reading ritual. Sometimes she chooses Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny. Sometimes Mem Fox’s Time for Bed. But more often than not, Goodnight Moon.
As we read, I think about all the fabulous books Tully and I have to look forward to: Fox in Sox, The Snowy Day, Amelia Bedelia, Ramona the Brave, Little House on the Prairie, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and loads of newly published books that I don’t even know about yet.
“Goodnight comb,” I say. “Goodnight _____.”
“Brush,” Tully says, and she uses a pretend brush to brush her hair.
I also think about the day when we’ll be ready to start a book club with other moms and daughters, and as I do, more titles flood my head:
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
The Secret Garden
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Someday. But right now….
“Goodnight noises everywhere,” I say.
“The end,” Tully whispers, sleepy and still in my arms.
“The end,” I repeat and I close the book.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of Thirsty and an American who lives in Shanghai, China. She is also a happy mom, a voracious reader, an engaging teacher who believes in “telling the best story you can…believing in your writing…and working your arse off,” a fierce advocate for the end of domestic violence, and a writer who spends as much time as possible in writerhead. To find out more, visit www.thirstythenovel.com or Kristin’s blog at www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com.