At my first parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the newer instructors asked me why my daughter would often re-read books that were “too easy” for her.
My daughter was already a strong reader by then. She’d taught herself, although we didn’t know about her new skill until sometime before her third birthday; she held up a cup at a restaurant, pointed to the words, and told us, “This says, Have fun.”
It did say, Have fun. We rushed through dinner and zipped home so that I could hold up magazines and novels and point to random (easy) words to ask her what they were. By the end of the evening, we had confirmed that she knew how to read.
There was no stopping her after tha—no.
That’s not true.
That makes it sound like it was never-ending progress: a rush toward fluency and proficiency when it was not like that at all.
Yes, every day, month, and year, she read harder, more complicated things. But as that teacher noted, she would also go back and re-read books—picture books, board books, books without words. She went forward. She went back. She re-read more than she read. We didn’t push her; she was in charge of her pace. The main thing that we did was to make sure there was always something for her to read. We took her to bookstores and libraries. We let her pick out and renew what interested her. We read to her when that was what she wanted. We left her alone when she needed that, too.
It didn’t occur to us to do anything different. So when the teacher asked us why—more out of curiosity than judgment—why my daughter re-read so often, I was surprised. I muttered something about familiar books being comforting, and the teacher seemed content with that. It never occurred to me to tell my daughter not to re-read. I had done the same as a child, too. And for me, yes, re-reading was a way to soothe myself. But re-reading was also a way of marking how much I had learned.
The text of a book doesn’t change—most of the time. A couple of authors have on occasion gone back to update details. (For example, Judy Blume altered a scene in later editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so that the protagonist used stick-on maxi pads instead of the belt and fastener that was prevalent when her classic children’s novel was first published in 1970.)
But for the most part, what changes is not the book, but the reader.
There are the jokes written for adults (by adults) in stories meant for children that most kids aren’t likely to find funny until later. Or there are the scenes where there are emotional currents that children—the protagonists of the book and maybe the young reader—don’t necessarily understand.
For example, I was reading middle-grade writer Susan Tan’s latest book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic recently, and came across this passage:
Until right as I was about to put together the triceratops’s tail, I heard a conversation that made me stop and pay attention.
They were still talking about the wedding. And my mom said, “Just remember, this is your day. All that matters is you and Paul. Everyone else will deal.”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “Also the trick is knowing how to manage Mom. She can be a handful, but you just have to know how to keep her happy.”
“That’s easy for you to say, big brother,” Auntie Eva said. “You’re the son—you just have to show up and be yourself and you’ll make Mom and Dad happy. I have to be perfect…”
Cilla is an optimistic, aspiring writer. She’s in third grade and happens to be biracial. Her beloved aunt is about to get married, and the event brings out tensions in the family that Cilla doesn’t quite understand. Adults may be able to unpack all that’s going on, but Cilla’s confusion—her growing knowledge that the grown-ups see all of the events of life quite differently—mirrors the younger reader’s. In a way, the fact that this book may be understood on more than one level means that this book is meant to be remembered and re-read.
But of course, sometimes, re-reading doesn’t make a book seem better.
This column, of course, is all about re-reading. It’s about looking at how books shaped me, and also at how my perception of those books has changed now that I’m an adult. At times it has been a delight and a comfort to greet my old friends. Sometimes it has been painful but rewarding. Sometimes it’s been shit.
Recently, my husband was flipping through the channels when he happened upon an episode of The Golden Girls, a classic NBC sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992. As soon as I saw it, I said something about how often I’d watched the show in re-runs after school. I remembered watching TV in the basement, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was a latchkey kid and spent hours alone except for books and the television. I knew even then that the show wasn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t matter. It was a comforting place where I could settle.
Of course—of course—as soon as I said something about this to my husband, the following happened onscreen:
Teacher Dorothy, played by the great Bea Arthur, is doing roll call for her adult education class. She says, “Jim Shu.” No one answers. She says, “Oh, very funny. Gym shoe.”
Then an Asian man, played by Ralph Ahn, stands up and says, “I am Jim Shu.”
Dorothy apologizes profusely. She explains, “I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Jim Shu looks at her up at down and says, “I don’t think I could drink that much sake.”
The live studio audience laughs wildly, even though the line doesn’t really make any sense. Also, sake is Japanese, Jim Shu is probably Chinese, but who can tell the difference? LOL ASIANS AND THEIR FUNNY-SOUNDING NAMES FOR THEMSELVES AND THINGS.
It was like a kick in the stomach. But at the time I first saw it, I probably thought I should laugh along. Even while sitting alone in the basement.
I guess it’s a measure of what a person I’ve become—Oh, look how I’ve grown—when the space for comfort is no longer comfortable. And I don’t wish that the children’s books I’ve re-read as an adult were different, nor do I wish to unlearn what I know now in order to feel soothed by old, familiar fictional people and places.
But if I did have to do it over again, I might answer my daughter’s teacher a different way. If she asked why my daughter returned to books that were too easy for her, I would tell her that in re-reading, my child was exploring the spaces she’d been in, furnishing them with new knowledge. And in doing so, she was asking if she needed more.
About Mindy Hung
Mindy Hung‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Toast, Salon, The New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in Joyland, PANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19.