Unicorns, My Daughter, & Me

I’M NOT TRYING TO NOMINATE MYSELF for World’s Greatest Dad, and I’m certainly no literary critic, but I wanted to share a story about some special time that I’ve lately spent with my daughter. It begins on a cold winter weekend, with a trip to the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

Before I go any further, let me say that in a time when Borders and Barnes & Nobles and so many independent bookstores are disappearing, in an era when Amazon grows greater still, there is something even more special about going to a library. It’s free. You can sample anything you want. And it’s a destination: a place with no lights or buzzers, no admission fees or fuss; a place where parents and kids can spare themselves and their neurons the overstimulation of yet another afternoon on Wii or Xbox, avoid the crowds at the movies or the Science Center, and just get lost for a while in the quiet. And all the endless possibilities.

CLPgh

My daughter, a 4th grader, was reading fairly well at the time, but given the choice, she almost always picked a book below her reading level. I wanted her to read, or at least to hear, something more challenging. Some teacher friends of mine had told me that being read to can greatly impact a child’s developing brain, so I thought it would be good, and also fun, to read a book to her. Not like when she was in pre-school, and we tried to sound out the words together — but a new experience, one with a story we could enjoy together.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good fantasy novel. Give me some magic, maybe some elves or some knights, and I’m a happy man. So I (selfishly) start picking some fantasy-themed books out of the children’s section.

(By the way — if you haven’t been to the Main Oakland Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, you need to go. It’s a fantastic place and a beautiful building. And the children’s section rocks.)

By the time I’ve grabbed three books to sample, my daughter is on to me. She’s already wandering away, looking over the same book series she’d scoured many times before, trying to find one she might have missed. There’s nothing wrong with those books, but not a lot right with them either. They’re all less than 100 pages: fast reads, predictable, and far from challenging.

She looks my way and says, “You’re not picking books for me, Dad.”

I get a bit defensive.

“I’m looking for something I can read to your brothers.”

She sees right through me, and she lets me know it.

“I’m not going to read any of them.”

“I’m just looking,” I say, trying to hide the fact that she’s outsmarted me again, and that I’m kind of ticked off about it.

I LOOK DOWN AT ONE OF THE BOOKS I’m holding. I read the back cover, then jump into the first chapter and find I can’t put the darned thing down. It’s called The Unicorn Chronicles. I’m worried that it might be some overly cutesy story about marshmallow clouds and magical unicorns, but I get pulled right into a story about a girl and her grandmother in distress. They’re being chased, and the grandmother, ever resourceful, does everything she can to keep them from getting caught. After a couple of pages, I’m hooked!

UnicornChronicles

I look over at my daughter, who holds a black belt in Tai-Kwon-NO, and try what I think is a pretty slick attempt at subtle nonchalance.

“Hey, honey,” I say, “This is a pretty cool book.”

“No, Dad,” she replies. It’s a natural reflex, a reaction so swift and sure, she’s like Mr. Miyagi taking out those kids who were beating up Daniel-San. I saw it coming, but I was powerless to stop it.

Still, she starts walking in my direction. She’s looking at me, and she’s looking at the book, and I can see that she’s running some sort of sophisticated, on-the-spot analysis. It reminds of that scene from The Terminator, when the words and choices start popping up on the digital display inside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head.

Unicorn picture on cover ::: GOOD
Thick book ::: BAD
Small words ::: BAD
Many chapters ::: BAD
Terminate ::: NOW.

“Dad,” she says, after less than a second of processing time, “I don’t want to read that!”

This seems like a good time to tell you that being a pediatrician sooooooo does not make you a cool parent. In fact, I think it makes being a parent even more frustrating sometimes. Working with kids is my thing, right? This is what I do. Shouldn’t I be doing better than this? Well, yes, yes, and maybe. But it rarely works that way. The way it usually works is that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t push any of the buttons I want. Meanwhile, my kids are pushing buttons I didn’t even know I had!

But one thing I do know: in times like these, sometimes the best strategy is to stop trying to be tricky and just lay it on the line. So I say:

“I just read a couple of pages, and I think this book is really good. Let me read you the first chapter. If you hate it, I’ll put it back.”

“I thought you were picking books for my brothers.”

Did I mention she has a black belt in Tai-Kwon-NO?

mr_miyagi

“Oh, just sit down and listen, you rotten kid.”

Clearly humoring me, she smiles and sits down.

I read her the first chapter. As soon as I’m done, she starts asking questions.

“What happens to the girl? Does she get away? Why is she being chased?”

And at that moment, I feel a little like Mr. Miyagi myself.

I resist the urge to say, “Wax on, wax off!” But I do suggest that we should “Read on.” And we do.

She gets a few of her usual books, and we take The Unicorn Chronicles home together.

.  .  .

BEDTIME FOR A PRE-TEEN. Goodnight Moon has waxed and waned. Readers #1, 2, & 3 are beyond passé. Worse than the loss of the reading material is the change of the parent-child relationship. The hugs and kisses that used to come so naturally, and that I so treasured, have become less cool. The bedtime routine, the tooth brushing and flossing, the tucking in — they’ve all started to become a little too childish for an independent, rapidly maturing child who, though she might still want to be taken care of, doesn’t always want to show it.

For a few wonderful weeks, The Unicorn Chronicles changed that. Instead of reminding her to floss and to lay out her clothes for school, and then following up with a quick goodnight kiss on the head, I had something much better.

“Want me to read a chapter or two of the book?”

So began a regular bedtime ritual, about 20-40 minutes a night, 3-4 nights a week, picking up where we left off and following up what we’d begun at the library.

My daughter and I looked forward to each new chapter, and to a pretty sophisticated story line that kept us guessing. Cara, the hero of the story, is an adolescent with a caring yet mysterious gr andmother and a strong desire for a stable home. As I discovered in the library, the book begins with a fast and furious chase that thrusts Cara into a world called Luster, where she meets many strange creatures, including — you guessed it — unicorns.

UnicornLand

Cara is a great heroine and a great role model: brave, independent, resourceful, and smart-on-her-feet. She’s thrown into a new situation, feels totally overwhelmed, but makes new friends and discoveries that she hopes will get her home and reunite her with her grandmother.

The unicorns, like the world of Luster they in habit, are beautiful and magical. But, fair warning: all is not silver-leafed trees and unicorn magic. There’s a ruthless, evil, magical villain intent on destroying all the unicorns. My daughter handled the suspense and conflict easily, enjoying the depth and excitement they brought to the story.

Long before we finished the first book, my daughter and I were hooked on the whole series. We knew there were three more books, and we couldn’t wait to read them all together. Plenty of plot twists kept us interested, and the effortless flow of action and adventure caused a lot of bedtime readings to end with, “Please, Dad, just one more chapter.”

Those requests were music to my ears. Fulfilling those requests was music to my heart.

FROM A LITTLE OLD-FASHIONED LIBRARY-GOING, a little sitting and reading, and a willingness from both of us to take a chance together, we got almost a half a year of wonderful Dad-Daughter time. Now we have some inside jokes, some foreign fantasy language we learned from a little creature called the Squijim, a common literary reference point about friends and doing the right thing, and a four-book series under our belts that was fun and entertaining, and that left us wanting to read more together. It was all pretty amazing.

So what are the morals of my story? Maybe these:

That, especially on cold and rainy days, the library is a great place to take your kids. That there’s a real sense of magic to be found in reading, or being read, a story out loud. That reading together can be worked into the bedtime routine of even the most skeptical and sophisticated fourth-grade black belt in Tai-Kwon-NO. And that, no matter how frustrated you might be as a parent sometimes, you never know when you’re about to start on some new and wonderful adventure.

Just keep it fresh. Try your best. And keep on trying.

Dr. Wolynn is President and CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, and a major J.R.R. Tolkien fan. He hopes to one day be the Gandalf, or at least the Mr. Miyagi, of pediatricians.