It was a pretty good run, those eight and a half years. We explored a lot of lands, made some great friends and shared a lot of laughs along the way. We jumped from one adventure to the next, rode the seas with pirates, flew in rocket ships to distant planets and fought with superheros in our underwear. We had fights with best friends, made up silly words, rode on magical creatures and forgot to do our homework. We revisited familiar places, sounded out words on our own and had long discussions about what was real and what was not and what lay somewhere in the middle. We read a lot of books at bed time, my son and me.
My wife and I are both readers at heart and we shared that passion with our son as soon as he could focus on our voices and show interest in the wide world around him. At first his books were just colorful chew toys but time proved that they didn’t taste any better with age. A few weeks later they were clever devices which squished in the fingers and could be thrown from the hand. And, occasionally, when they landed just right, they had pretty pictures.
But as weeks turned to months books became interesting objects. When brought to mommy or dad it made them stop what they were doing, pick him up and begin talking. These little objects, these books, allowed parent and child to share a common experience speak a common language.
Books start the conversation.
Bedtime is no fun. After the bath our son knows his day is ending. But the day is interesting and he doesn’t want to miss anything. So we soften the transition with a story before bed. A bedtime story. And so it begins.
Books allow Daddy to lead his son on an adventure.
We read and we read, sometimes it is Mommy, sometimes it is Daddy. Sometimes, on special nights, both of us. Sometimes they are short stories, sometimes they are long stories. Sometimes, on special nights, more than one story. And after the story is over we say our good nights, turn out the light and usually sit there in the dark, enjoying the moment.
“Dad, are dragons real?”
“I know what I’d do if I had a superpower!…”
“Mom, did you know there are four kinds of sharks?”
“That was funny! I’m going to be an inventor like that when I grow up…”
These are the things we talk about in the darkened room after the stories are over.
The books don’t always lead to conversations, but often they do. Sometimes we’re both tired or grumpy or both and we just relax, knowing the other one is there. Sometimes I stay by his side in the dark for a short period of time. Sometimes I fall asleep next to him. Sometimes I simply wait for him to fall asleep. But it always starts with a book.
My son is eight and a half now. These bedtime stories have been our tradition. Though he’s known how to read for a few years and he sometimes reads stories to me for practice, it was still mostly my job to read the stories and his job to listen. Sometimes I’d read a chapter aloud and then let him read another chapter on his own before turning out his light.
But these nights of bedtime stories are dwindling. A few weeks ago we were throwing away a cereal box when we saw that it had an coupon code on it for a free book from Scholastic. There selection was limited but one book caught my eye. It was called Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy and it had a dragon on the cover. I’d never heard of it but how bad could it be? My son had never shown much more than a passing interest in the ‘fantasy’ genre, but it was worth a shot. I ordered it on a whim.
A few weeks later it arrived in the mail. He was surprised and somewhat interested. He looked through the first few pages to discover detailed drawings of the dragons with a description of each type. He was apprehensive. This chapter book had no pictures other than the few descriptive sketches and a map at the beginning. I don’t think he knew what to make of it.
That evening we settled into bed and he pulled out the dragon book. I suggested he turn on his bedside light and read it himself. He seemed unsure of himself, but agreed. He opened the book and began reading the first few pages to himself. I gave him a good night kiss and let myself out of his bedroom, leaving him alone with his book.
The next morning he ran downstairs while I was finishing breakfast.
“Dad, I LOVE this book! I LOVE, LOVE it! These dragons are the chosen ones and they’re in this cave and they want to get out and…”
For the next few days that’s all we heard. Repeated gushes of praise over his Wings of Fire book. Another cereal box, and a sequel on the way and… a different kind of bed time.
We’ve now been through four of the Wings of Fire books in about three weeks. Bedtimes no longer involve me reading stories to him. Now my son jumps into bed, turns on his reading light and picks up where he left off.
We still talk for a few minutes most nights. He tells me about his day and he tells me about his story. But I already miss reading aloud to him. I miss going on adventures with him and leading him through new worlds. But he’s growing up fast (too fast!) and it’s time he begins to venture out on his own.
It’s time for him to have his own adventures…
…only… not just yet. I’m now half-way through the second Wings of Fire book myself and I’m excited to keep going through the series. He suggested I read it, and I jumped at the chance. Though I don’t know for sure, I like to think that some part of him also missed our bedtime stories together.
My son and I can now talk about the characters and the worlds and compare notes and we can still have that shared experience, just on a slightly different schedule.
He’s still my favorite adventure companion, even if he’s now the one leading the way.