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Bound together by our books

December 23, 2005|Gregory Maguire | GREGORY MAGUIRE is the author of "Wicked" (Regan Books, 1995) and "Son of a Witch" (ReganBooks, 2005).

TO ANY PARENT with young kids, the weeks leading up to the December orgy of gift-booty are a vexation to the spirit and a trial to the liver. (Straight bourbon at breakfast, honey. Skip the eggnog.) Matters are made worse today by the arrival of an early season snowfall. Hysterical children are marooned at home because the schools here in Massachusetts are closed. The world is reduced to white pelted with white. The streetlights, which never went off at dawn because dawn never got bright enough, render the day not warmer but bleaker.

OK, so the three small kids are watching a video right now. (How else could I be tussling with prose at this hour?) Still, their down time in front of the television is just a brief interlude in a longer, more intimate entertainment that their other dad and I have chosen out of a love of stories and a respect for the color of the weather. We are both reading aloud (one as narrator, the other one taking all voices in the dramatis personae) from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

So we hunker down with hot cocoa, under a blanket, and we take up with Chapter 7. Our three kids, all adopted from equatorial countries in which the existence of snow itself must be taken on faith, shudder with glee and huddle closer. They're enjoying both the apprehension of danger and the hope of consolation. A second-grader, a kindergartner, a preschooler: two boys from Cambodia and a girl from Guatemala. They are learning to be American, paradoxically, by listening to a quirky mid-century British fantasy about a land cursed by endless snow without the promise of Christmas.

They are my children, so they are all our children too: the children of America. In time they will come to know more about Cambodia and Guatemala -- they know some small bits already, and recognize themselves in the photos from infancy. But they need also to recognize themselves in a sledge being drawn by the White Witch, in a wardrobe stuffed not only with fur coats but with a whole magic country. Why do I believe this recognition is so crucial for them?

There's a central reason: The literature of childhood -- including the fairy tales, the parables of history, the hero tales and legends, the cautionary lore and the folk beliefs -- increasingly serves as that rarest of constructs: a set of references recognizable to us all. Our choices aren't limited to mid-century British fantasy, nor to the books we loved as children. We're liberal in our literary diet, taking anything we love and caroling it in their direction. Mother Goose and Father Christmas. Madeline and Eloise and their modern cousin, Olivia. The Cat in the Hat and the boys on the raft on the Mississippi. Oz and Narnia and Neverland. The spider writing in the web and Harriet writing in her spy notebook.

It doesn't matter which side of the political aisle any one of us citizens sits on (or shouts from), or which position on any current-affairs debate we might take. We could be card-carrying members of a red state or blue state, or we might be marooned in the wrong state, white with disbelief, green with envy, or purple with apoplexy. We nonetheless share the spoils of our childhood reading. Before political identify, class identity, often even before the reality of ethnic and racial identity has set in, the Tooth Fairy gets to all of us first. Santa Claus gets to all of us. The wolf in grandmother's nightgown got to all of us. Hell, the Wicked Witch of the West scares all of us long before any dangerously out-of-touch foreign policy advisors can. These childhood reading experiences are our lingua franca, the commonest coin that jingles in all our memories, and they will serve us our whole lives long.

Tomorrow the snow will let up, and we consumers will plunge back into the marketplace for pillage and plunder, to make our spirits bright. Let's not forget to scavenge for the best books for our kids. We are giving our newest citizens a way to belong to each other, giving them a language they can use their whole lives long. "In reading," said C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, " ... I become a thousand men and yet remain myself." Andy and I are reading aloud "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" on a snow day to some immigrant kids growing themselves magically into American kids. Having a common language is the start of civilization, and our best chance to maintain civilization is to civilize our children. And, friends, this is a project we're not done with yet, because -- even though the snow may stop tomorrow -- the weather outside is still frightful.

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