All five of us are snuggled down in our sleeping bags. Outside the vinyl walls of our new, luxurious, six-person tent the night sings the music of crickets, voices of nearby campers, our fire crackling as it dies down. It’s the second night of our first solo-family camping trip, and I haven’t yet started reading aloud the book I bought just for this purpose.
“OK. Turn off your headlamps,” I tell the kids. They do, by some miracle that defies the recent seeming vow they’ve all taken not to do a thing I ask of them.
It’s dark except for my own headlamp, and I begin reading. Sweetie in his sleeping bag by my side, and the kids all lined up in a row, their little bodies perpendicular to ours.
We’ve been planning on this camping trip for a while now. We were going to go last summer, but then Sweetie was recovering, and a trip seven hours away didn’t seem like the best idea. A camping trip was certainly out of the question. But this summer, after talking it over and deciding that the time was right, we finally made the reservations for our four nights in Maine. For six weeks, we counted down the days until we’d be staking our tent and setting up our camp stove in site number 29. If only we’d reserved for five nights, or even six. Our much-anticipated vacation was that fun.
We spent our days entirely outdoors, hiking in Acadia National Park, swimming in the nearby pool and the ocean (or in my case, wading not even up to my ankles in the 50-degree water), biking, cooking, getting ice cream. Even preparing meals on two burners while standing at the edge of a picnic table was enjoyable, because it was, well, campy. Added bonus: No floor to sweep when the crumbs spilled all over the floor (ground). But by nightfall, and the last trek down to the bathrooms and brushing teeth in the woods, we were tired and ready to snuggle in.
A few weeks before our trip I started searching for the “perfect” book to read to my kids while we were away. Over the fast course of this busy summer, most of our family’s reading has been during the daytimes. And most of it has been independent reading. The older kids taking turns reading to their 4-year-old sister. And when they weren’t available, she just faking it, sitting with her eyes glued to a Junie B. Jones book, deciphering letters and “reading” to herself. I half expect her to decode the letters and shapes and really learn to read this way. Already she recognizes words on road signs when we’re driving along, asking, “Why does that say ‘no’ on that orange sign?” Precisely because I’d done so little reading aloud all summer, our camping trip seemed like a good time to get us back into the routine. Plus, what else is there to do once you’ve put the fire out and retired to the tent? Close quarters demand a distraction. And reading is the best distraction I know.
When I asked for book recommendations on Facebook, my notifications were like a message stream of their own. My FB friends—both the ones I know “in real life” and those whom I’ve met in the digital world—love to talk books. That’s how I know I’m friends with awesome people. The recommendations were great. There were classics and books from my own childhood, books I hadn’t heard of, and lots of books one or more of my kids already had read. I went to the library more than once, searching out many of these titles and perusing them thoroughly, trying to decide on one that would appeal to all of my children, ages 4, 7 and 9. I could have chosen many of the recommended books. But I didn’t want to bring a library book (envisioning it soggy from morning dew or sticky with marshmallows and Hershey chocolate), so I went to the bookstore to make a purchase. Still undecided, I browsed the children’s section, my daughters with me and doing their own excited explorations. Our routine is that when they find a book they want to add to their wish list, I open Evernote on my phone and snap a picture of the book cover. Of course, the day I had an actual mission in the children’s section, I spent more time snapping photos of Anna Dewdney’s new Llama, Llama book, Amelia Bedelia Means Business and many, many more enticing volumes than I did orienting myself to early reader chapter books. I finally had a few moments when I sent the girls off to read together at a nearby table, and I quickly made my way to the booksellers’ recommended section. Just at eye level was a book with a provocative cover and a sweet title. small as an elephant, it read, all lowercase blue letters against an almost colorless background as if to not stand out at all. But I was intrigued. I picked it up and read the back.
Ever since Jack can remember, his mom has been unpredictable, sometimes loving and fun, other times caught in a whirlwind of energy and “spinning” wildly until it’s over. But Jack never thought his mom would take off during the night and leave him at a campground in Acadia National Park, with no way to reach her and barely enough money for food. Any other kid would report his mom gone, but Jack knows by now that he needs to figure things out for himself – starting with how to get from the backwoods of Maine to his home in Boston before DSS catches on. With nothing but a small toy elephant to keep him company, Jack begins the long journey south, a journey that will test his wits and his loyalties – and his trust that he may be part of a larger herd after all.
I read the back again. Did that say Acadia National Park? That’s where we were going! The book was recommended for children in grades 3 to 6. And I have a 4-year-old, a second grader and a fourth grader. But my kids are mature readers and listeners, I told myself, desperately wanting this to be the perfect book. And I couldn’t pass up this seemingly miraculous find.
So before I could settle on another title, I gathered up my girls and off we went, with a book to read while we camped. One thing crossed off my very lengthy to-do list.
And from the first word of the book, our tent was silent.
“One more chapter!”
“You can’t stop there…”
And so I read, my headlamp starting to mildly dig into my forehead. My eyelids heavy, tired from the sun and the long day and all of the hours being outdoors. But I cannot say no to these demands for story, for words, for me. And I read until the littlest is asleep and until I simply cannot hold up the book any longer. The book in which 11-year-old Jack visits many of the places we have seen in recent days, the book that sets off sparks in the minds of our three, sleepy but excited to hear and picture in their own bright minds the places they have just been. Reading is a miracle. It is perfection. And I’ve missed this time with my children’s attention, rapt and demanding more of me.
To learn more about this book that touched all of us and sparked discussions about family and survival and adventure and fear, visit the author’s website, where there’s lots of great information about this and her other books. In a future post I’ll compile and share the list of books that all of my awesome reader friends recommended. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite read-alouds here. I’ll add them, too!