The spring my granddaughter, Kaylee, was five we took lessons in reading outside of the box. I, of course, had years of reading behind me. But she had only the alphabet and a handful of three-letter words at her command. Together we ventured by way of a picnic of cheese sandwiches into poetry and friendship.
My book club had met for a year or two when we settled on George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. In the story, death is personified as the mystical, gentle, and yet fierce North Wind who takes the young boy, Diamond, on night excursions that foreshadow his impending death. Sunny and silly poems temper the solemn subject matter in the children’s story. The prose is light and lovely, devotional in nature.
In a new move for our book club, Jana, who has an English degree, wanted to read aloud a poem from Diamond’s idyllic day at the seashore. I remembered the one—birds flying, lambs skipping, daisies growing—sweet, but a little repetitive.
Jana thumbed through the book to find her place and began to read. Her voice of silver and earth soon dissolved the room. Meadow flowers overhung a brook crossing at our feet. Birds wheeled on the wind, diving fast with wings spread, celebrating the gift of life. Lambs stumbled and balked, then nosed each other before skipping away to beginning their worship anew.
Jana’s voice wavered with emotion. Tears came to our eyes while the daisies waved, showering thankful petals on the breeze.
I don’t know if I got all the details exact. But that’s due to time, not because I didn’t see it clearly then. Jana’s voice transcribed the poetry into pictures. Her emotion made them magic.
A day or three later, I was playing picnic with Kaylee. I sliced plastic donuts on petal-pink plates with a tiny plastic knife and fork. Kaylee poured pretend tea from her silver pot and looked up at me. “Couldn’t we have a real picnic?”
“Well…I suppose we could make sandwiches.”
“And can we go outside?”
The grass was damp, so we folded the old tan bedspread with the modern art flowers double on the flat grass above the drainage ditch that cuts across our hilly lot. We nibbled our potato chips and quarters of granny smith apples, pouring juice from a Popples thermos that had belonged to her mother.
With lunch finished we poked sticks into the gully, snagging winter-rotted leaves as they hurried for the pond that would be their grave.
When I retreated from the water, I grabbed my book and called Kaylee back to the blanket. “Do you want to hear a poem?” I asked, hoping to share the magic of the book club with her.
Kaylee plopped down to listen and lay very still, her feathery hair floating with the breeze. She seemed mesmerized by the song-like words. But when I got to the end, she bounced up without a word to pick the flowers, small as seeds, that littered the lawn.
Maybe she was a bit young.
At lunchtime the next day she brought the tea set downstairs. “Can we have another picnic?”
Her pleading eyes sealed the deal. I headed for the kitchen to make the sandwiches, but she called me back. “Don’t forget your book.”
Though we had read Dr. Seuss and the Grimm Brothers all her short life, the ditch picnic marked the beginning of our literary friendship. We returned to the ditch and the George MacDonald poem more than once.
But soon, Kaylee was off to school and bringing me things that she liked. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo were two of our favorites. Later, we fell in love with A Bridge to Terebithia and Inkheart. Discussion questions sometimes led to thoughtful conversation we might have otherwise missed. And we celebrated too, rewarding ourselves with movie premiers or video rentals.
Kaylee has grown a lot. Our discussions turn now on the writing style of The Wind in the Willows, the faithfulness of The Hobbit movie to the book, or the moral issues in The Hunger Games. We continue to share our discoveries, but in addition we encourage each other in our writing adventures as well.
We learned lessons in reading and listening outside of our little boxes that spring. And I learned that my granddaughter makes a thoughtful companion. Our picnic and poem inspired what I hope will be a lifelong legacy of friendship through books.