I have always read to my boys as part of their bedtime ritual. Evening provides an opportunity for the cuddles they tell me aren’t manly in daylight. Plus, I am convinced that reading aloud increases my sons’ vocabulary. I remain a literary idealist; naive perhaps, but with a decent lexicon which I would like to bequeath my children.
Sometimes, I’m sad when a great story is finished. What could possibly be half as good as the book I just read? Naturally, I assume that nine-year-old Little Guy feels the same way: My tonic is to start a new book immediately. I choose carefully, trying not to repeat the same genre or time period. On this particular evening, I was excited. I had never read a Charles Dickens novel and had purchased a kid’s version of Oliver Twist, first published in 1838, from the “Classics for Young Readers” section at my local bookstore. I wasn’t sure the edition would be appropriate, but determined to read Little Guy something good, I bought the Dickens anyway. After all, Jack Wild captivated as the Artful Dodger in the movie version of Oliver and went on to star in the greatly underrated kid’s TV series, H.R. Pufnstuf. What greater endorsement could I ask for?
Little Guy snuggled into my left shoulder. I like to believe he cherishes our closeness but I think what he really likes are the words. He likes to see them – how they are spelled, how they look on the page grouped together. He seems to glean extra information from this practice. Usually. I have always encouraged him to stop me and ask if he doesn’t understand the meaning of a word; however, starting Oliver Twist almost made me regret that decision.
Anyone over 40 has probably heard the expression, “What the Dickens?”
When I was a kid, this turn of phrase was used to express confusion, mystification and the surprise that sometimes manifests when a thing is inexplicably inexplicable. I never considered where the expression originated until I read the opening paragraph in my version of Oliver Twist:
Among other public buildings in a certain town which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, it boasts of one which is common to most towns, great or small, to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to this book.
“Mom, what does ‘refrain’ mean? What’s ‘to wit’? What’s ‘an item of mortality’? Is that like a coffin or something? And what does it mean to have your name ‘prefixed’ to a book? Did they already have sticky notes in those days?”
I wondered if the expression “what the Dickens” had been coined by one of Chuck’s early readers. Little Guy shot questions at me fast as machine-gun fire and I’m proud to report that I answered with precision and ease – that is, until we hit the second page and he asked me what “extant” means.
I didn’t know. Really. When I read adult literature and am met with a word I don’t understand, I lazily rely upon framework, only looking up a definition if I’m stymied or intrigued. But, this . . . this was supposed to be a kid’s version and I’m supposed to be a grown-up, organic dictionary. I sat up against Little Guy’s pillow as his head promptly slid off my shoulder.
His questions continued unabated, mostly in the middle of sentences, which compromised the focus required to understand them. That’s another thing about Dickens: His sentences are often extraordinarily long. One needs to read them without pause from beginning to end, but this requires silence on the part of the listener and incredible lung power on the part of the reader. Little Guy interrupted me every few words. “What’s ‘consolatory’, Mom? What’s a ‘beadle’? What’s ‘countenance’?”
“It means, ‘face’,” I said.
“Then, why didn’t he just write ‘face’?” asked my son.
I explained that writers try to say things in interesting ways, that learning new words was good for his brain and that odd-seeming words might have been more regularly used in different eras. I tentatively suggested that instead of stopping me every time he didn’t understand a word, he try to discern its meaning through context (I taught him that one when he was seven!) and only interrupt me for the true stumpers.
I proceeded to complete the first two chapters of Oliver Twist. Little Guy became so quiet that I checked a few times to see if he had fallen asleep, but his eyes were wide open in concentration. As I read, I noticed that Charles Dickens certainly had a way with words. He was humorous and sarcastic; his character descriptions evocative and tangible. I could see why the guy’s writing had survived almost two centuries. He was really quite good. When Oliver uttered the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more,” I nodded knowingly like I’d nod to an old friend at a stuffy cocktail party.
Still, our first night of reading had been difficult. I worried that even this literary giant’s talent wouldn’t be enough to hold the attention of a child who spent as many of his waking hours as possible thumbing the controls of a gaming device. “So,” I said, “should we keep reading this story or maybe start something else and put this one away for when we’re both a little bit older?”
Little Guy sat up in alarm. “Are you serious, Mom? We have to keep going. We have to find out what happens to Oliver!”
Suddenly, I regained confidence as the director of my son’s literary education as well as my own. “It’s a deal,” I said, happily.
“Mom!” he said, grinning back at me. “Wipe that smile off your countenance right this minute.”
Robin Stone mothers and writes in Toronto.