Understanding Bravery

November 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I heard the sobs before I saw him. It was a Monday evening, two weeks ago. My daughter and I were sitting in the living room, reading the fifth book in the Clementine series (more on that another time, because OBSESSED) and waiting for my son to ride his bike home from soccer practice. In between paragraphs, I kept sneaking glances at the open front door. I had expected JP at seven, and it was now twenty minutes past. Darkness had fallen. He has his bike light, I kept telling myself. He’ll be fine.

And then, from outside, I heard heaving gasps of air. I flew through the door, just in time to witness my ten year old throw himself off his bike and collapse onto the pavement in a fit of tears. “What on earth has happened?” I cried, all manner of horrors racing through my mind.

“I CAN’T FIND MY WATCH!” he wailed. “I took it off during practice and I thought I put it in my bag but I must have put it next to the bag and I didn’t remember until I was halfway home and then I rode back to the field and tried to use my bike light to find it but it was too dark and I was feeling around on the grass where I thought it was and…and…and…”

My first reaction, which I did my best to conceal, was one of immense relief (Lord, child, I thought you had been chased by a masked man with a chain saw!). But then I realized who was standing—actually, lying—before me.

Some kids have a lovey. Some kids have a threadbare monkey or a favorite fidget or a magic feather.

My son has a watch.

From an early age—long before he could tie his own shoes or read a sentence—JP taught himself to tell time. It was as if he took one look at the great big world outside our front door and thought, There is no way I’m going out there unless I can track every second. He asked for a watch that Christmas, and he has almost never left the house without it. I have never attended a teacher conference where the teacher hasn’t said, “JP really likes to keep the class on schedule!”

My son’s watch is the compass by which he charts daily life.

So, I understood that, for JP, losing his watch was something worth falling to pieces over (the same cannot be said for other occasions of hysteria in our house). I also recognized—and my heart swelled—that he had shown great courage in the minutes between leaving practice and arriving home. As he re-enacted every moment for me, I pictured him laying out the contents of his bag on the sidewalk after he had suddenly remembered to check for his watch while riding home. I pictured him deliberating, then turning back to the park, now shrouded in darkness, trying in vain to make his bike light shine down on the patch of grass he wanted to search. I pictured him alone. My sweet, sensitive boy, out there in the pitch black on his hands and knees, trying to find a $23 watch that had years ago transformed into a kind of talisman for living.

I didn’t hesitate. Despite dinner in the oven, despite a traveling husband and an overtired younger child, despite the chilly, starless night, I said to JP, “Go get the big flashlight and I’ll drive you back.” The three of us piled into the car, drove the six blocks, and Emily and I watched as the little spot of light that was JP traversed the small stretch of field where he believed he had lost the watch. After a few tense minutes, the light began bobbing quickly towards us, with JP cheering victoriously, “I found it!”

“Mommy,” my daughter whispered just before JP opened the car door, “it’s just like Dad and the Dinosaur.” And she was right. The scene was straight out of Gennifer Choldenko and Dan Santat’s new picture book, Dad and the Dinosaur (Ages 4-8), which I first read to my daughter at the end of the summer and which she has often been seen reading to herself this fall.

In the story, a boy named Nicholas—another soccer player—has a secret. People, especially his parents, are always raving about how “brave” he is. Yet, Nicholas himself feels anything but brave. This outward display of bravery, Nicholas believes, comes not from within himself, but from the tiny dinosaur figurine he secretly carries with him everywhere, tucked into a pocket or pushed down into his soccer sock or tied into the lining of his swim trunks.

In Nicholas’ mind, it’s the dinosaur that’s brave—and that bravery extends to Nicholas by proximity. The toy dinosaur in his pocket may be little, but Nicholas feels its great boldness when he tackles a climbing wall. He personifies the dinosaur’s ferocity when he tears down the soccer field to score. Caldecott-winning illustrator Dan Santat outdoes himself in these pages, seamlessly weaving the fantastical, large-scale dinosaur of Nicholas’ imagination with the dwarfed reality of the mini figure.

Nicholas even sleeps with the dinosaur underneath his pillow. “Dinosaurs like the dark, bugs are nothing to them, and they eat manhole covers for lunch and everything under them for dinner.”

Then one evening, after winning his soccer game, Nicholas realizes his dinosaur is missing. As the sun sets, Nicholas crisscrosses the field on his hands and knees searching for it. When his mom asks him what he’s doing, he replies, “Nothing.” He has never told anyone about the dinosaur, about what it does for him.

Without his trusty talisman, the world suddenly looks a lot scarier. Shadows creep up from underneath manhole covers on the drive home and tap him on the shoulder as he lies in bed with his eyes pressed shut.

Later, when his dad comes in to check on him and finds him still awake, Nicholas decides to come clean. “I lost my dinosaur. He’s the brave one. Not me.”

The dad doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t ask loaded questions, doesn’t brush away Nicholas’ feelings by telling him to “man up” and assuring him no silly dinosaur has the power to make someone brave. He simply says, “Let’s go find him, then.” In the middle of the night, the two drive across town and search the “spongy grass” by flashlight until they find what they’re looking for. And when they get home, Dad even helps Nicholas give the dinosaur a bath before sliding him gently under the pillow.

To be sure, Nicholas falls asleep comforted by the return of his beloved dinosaur. And yet, we as readers come away with the impression that, for Nicholas, an even greater reassurance lies in the strengthened bond with his father. By inviting his father into his emotional life, by letting him glimpse the vulnerability beneath the “strong,” Nicholas has perhaps shown more courage than ever before.

As I tucked my own son into bed on the night of The Great Watch Rescue, he gave me one of the longest, tightest hugs in recent memory. “Thank you, Mommy, for taking me back to the park tonight.” I like to think that what he was really saying was, Thank you for seeing me.

Parenting wins are rare, at least in our house. So I’ll take it. I went to bed feeling lighter and happier than I had in a long time. And I also wondered if, without realizing it, I had been influenced back in August when I first read Dad and the Dinosaur, that I had carried a little bit of the dad with me all this time.

I like to think books come into our lives for a reason.

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Review copy provided by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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