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I don’t want to die

by Barry L. Levy

“I don’t want to die.”

Moments ago, I said those words aloud to my five year old daughters.  I know what you’re thinking, way to go, Barry.  Solid work trying to traumatize your girls.

But I did say it.  Vigorously.  Passionately.  Then I said it again.  And again.

It was E.B. White’s fault.  These were the words of Wilbur the Pig, and this was the classic children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web.”

And no sooner did I say these words than I realized — I was screwed.

I was five years old when my mother first introduced to me the concept chapter books.  It was a rite of passage… graduating from picture books to the real deal.  Each night, she’d read a chapter to me on our couch before bed.  Within months I was doing it on my own.  From there, I was off to the races.  So I thought, I’d share a similar tradition with my girls.  We’d read a chapter a night.

Initially, they resisted.  So I went back and added a sweetener to the deal.  I picked Charlotte’s F-ing Web, because after we read the book, I promised to show them the movie.

From there, we quickly closed negotiations and we began reading.  Only, I really didn’t know what I was in for.  Four chapters in, I had clearly struck a chord in both of them… it was workingOnly that’s when I proceeded to scare the bejesus out of them.

I.  Don’t.  Want.  To.  Die.

It isn’t like I could just bail out now, either.  What sort of message would that send?

When it comes to children’s books, let’s be honest, it really is all about the vital lessons we’re sending with our choices.  That’s what I thought, anyway.  Which is why I’m kind of sweating it now.

To be clear: I’m actually not worried about having a conversation about death with my kids.  Last year, after one of our cats passed away, our kids took to sharing with the world that their cat, Nate, died.  I don’t know if any of you received their press release or their tweet or FB status update, but they told pretty much everyone.  And anyone.  Waitresses, the pharmacist.  Even our doctor.

And, it’s probably worth adding that I don’t really fear explaining where bacon comes from either.  Bound to happen.

No, my concern was far more primary and immediate:  if Wilbur’s mortal danger gives either of my girls nightmares, I’m going to be so FUCKING pissed.

Look, if I’m being totally honest, while I love reading to my children, I won’t deny the practical necessity of our nightly ritual… yes, I want to have this quality time with them.

But then I want them to go to sleep!  I want them to stay asleep.  And well… that’s pretty much it.

Nightmares, not so much.

Say what you will about my candor, I’ve never been too proud to be honest.

I’m not against comforting my sick child or soothing them back to sleep after a nightmare.  I’m just not all that in favor of doing it if the alternative was — eh, they could just skip having friggin’ nightmares.

So perhaps, instead of “I don’t want to die,” couldn’t E.B. have just written, “I just want you to fucking sleep!?”  I realize it doesn’t exactly work in the context of the story, but I would’ve been fine with this non-sequitur.

The truth is, when it comes to my nights, what I really love is tiptoeing back in hours later and watching them sleep.  Precious.  Adorable.  Beautiful.

I will involuntarily smile at the sight of the child who’s turned themselves 180-degrees in the middle of the night.  I will laugh at the one who lies there splayed out, with their arms up and their legs spread.  And I’ll even photograph the one who took a pacifier and shoved it in her ear while asleep… it’s a “forever” moment.

My fear now is that “I don’t want to die” is also about to become a forever moment as well.  And this really is a problem.  When it comes to reading to them, my only principle is that whatever I’m reading must send them into la-la-land for a solid ten hours minimum.

As much as I’d love them to one day appreciate the true genius Dr. Seuss’s classics, we’re just not there.  At least, not yet.  Because of this, I’ve unabashedly lowered the bar of what I’ll read to include things that I’d otherwise be appalled by.  I’m serious.

I relish reading my son the old Curious George books my mother saved from my childhood… there’s a distinct rhythm.  A patter.  A cadence that calms.  It’s a genuine highlight watching him drift off in mid story with me there beside him.

It’s freaking adorable, if you don’t mind just how politically incorrect old-school Curious George was.

New School George is great.  But back in the day, George would always get himself into trouble that required this big white guy — his owner — to bail him out of jail, cages, etc.  Hell, Whitey McWhites-a-lot even saved him from the perils of Africa — subtle, right?

Truth be told, the Man with the Yellow Hat really only saved George if you expand your definition of “saving” to include someone kidnapping a defenseless being.  ‘Cause when you really look at it, saving this monkey involved tricking him with a bright colored object, throwing him in a gunny sack and then dragging him onto a boat where you explain to him that he’ll be yours now.  Yeah, that’s not creepy.

Only it’s not just Curious George.  Take a second look at any of those Golden Book classics.  There’s nothing more absurd than having your daughter demand that you keep reading the book about the girl whose three brothers all get to play doctor while she is required to play nurse.  Because, she’s a girl… yeah.  Good times.

Or those classic Disney princesses… why is it that all of them involve absentee (or deceased) parents, all included genuine forces of evil… and a fantastic array of gender stereotypes that would make June Cleaver proud?

Maybe the lesson in all of this is to stop looking for lessons in books.  Or maybe the lesson is just that it’s okay to prime your five year old’s REM cycle for dreams involving the slaughter of animals…

Or maybe the process itself of reading is really the gift we give our children.  Yeah, let’s go with that one.

After all, do I really think my kids are going to one day kidnap a monkey and relegate it to second class citizenship?  Or do I think my girls will tolerate overt professional chauvinism because little Suzy did that Golden Book?

No.

But then if either of my daughters wakes me up tonight with that tap-tap-tap, Daddy, I had a nightmare moment, I might actually consider the virtues of illiteracy.

Barry L. Levy

About Barry L. Levy

Barry Levy is a husband. A father. A writer. His "credits" include Noa, Jordan, Ben. His writing credits include Vantage Point & Paranoia. Follow him on Twitter @barryllevy

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