Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The First Book that Made You Cry

Several nights ago, I was sitting in my bed rereading Plato, mentally preparing for my graduate class when Julien padded into the room and crawled silently into my bed. He pulled the covers over his head and curled away from me.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

He didn't answer, so I pulled on the covers and saw his red face and puffy eyes. He was sniffling, and an embarrassed smile spread across his face.

"What's wrong?" I asked again.

"I finished the book."

"And it made you cry?"

He nodded, then burst into tears. I tugged at him until he was curled under my arm. I was immediately moved, stirred by old memories of really good books that made me cry when I was a child. I laughed a little and tried to cheer him up. I picked my phone off the bedside stand and did this impromptu interview:

Of course, I didn't make him read it. Instead, I set down Plato's Gorgias and started reading the last 40 pages of Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom. One touching scene between a counselor and her socially-challenged student did bring a tear to my eye, but the end was rather hopeful and, at times, really funny. Julien watched and waited for me to cry.

"Isn't it sad?" he asked when I finished.

"Yes. And full of hope."

He hugged me and started crying again. He cried for an hour, and I marveled at his emotional response to the book. I was proud that he'd invested his imagination in the life of this character who is so different from him. I was glad he tapped into his own fears about changes, endings, the uncertainty and unfairness of life. I was grateful that this book will, without doubt, find a permanent place in his memory of literature that profoundly moved him, like Summer of My German Soldier and Gone With the Wind and The Giving Tree did for me.

I remember curling up in bed as a child and crying, too. Loss is a universal experience. When it happens to a fictional character, we are powerless to do anything but watch. Because the characters aren't real, we're not allowed to offer sympathy through a comforting hand or glance; so we become the character and experience empathy. That's pretty powerful stuff for kids. In my opinion, empathy is the most important character trait to foster if we are to raise kind and decent children. Maybe that's why I was so proud and humbled by Julien's response.

When Julien finally settled down enough to sleep, he took my hand and said, "Thank you for buying me that book."

"Thank you, too," I answered. For two days, he couldn't watch the video of his own response to the book. It choked him up too much. But yesterday, he watched it and smiled and told me that he thought I should put it on the internet so other children would see what a great book it was. They would want to read it and see if it makes them "hysterical," too. Now, he's planning a thank you letter for Louis Sachar.

Do you remember the first book that made you cry, it was so good? What was it?