“Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

January 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

A friend once confided in me that she hated reading aloud to her kids; even more, she hated how bad she felt about hating it. Her kids were now reading independently, so she had hoped she’d be off the hook; and yet, they didn’t love reading. She worried she was failing them by not investing in time to read aloud. (Is anyone harder on herself than a mother?)

It’s true that I’m a passionate advocate for reading aloud to kids long after they are reading on their own. The benefits are vast (I’ve listed ten here), with the greatest being that our voice brings literature alive in a way that entices children to continue putting in the work on their own. But I’ve also always pressed parents to choose books they will enjoy as much as their kids, because our enjoyment should be genuine. No one can sniff out a half-hearted effort like a kid, and the last thing we want to convey to our kids is that reading is a chore.

Here’s what I told my friend: park your guilt at the door and do you. You love to read, so read alongside your children. When they’re ready for bed, or whenever you think you should be reading to them, get your own book, have them get their books, and snuggle together while reading quietly. We call these “reading parties” in our house—a term my son coined years ago. I have another friend who calls them “stop, drop, and read” moments, where everyone drops what they are doing, grabs a book, and reads together for at least fifteen minutes. Simply by enjoying your own book, you are modeling for your children the value your family places on reading.

There’s something else I recommend, if you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids around reading but aren’t keen to read to them—or, as happens to the best of us, are having trouble finding the time. Consider reading to yourself a book they’ve recently read and loved. Maybe even something they’re reading right now (my daughter and I are currently doing this with the crazy fun new supernatural thriller Amari and the Night Brothers; she leaves it outside her bedroom door each night and I grab it before I get into bed). What better message can we send than, I value your reading so much that I’m choosing to pick up one of your recommendations?

Before I fell down the rabbit hole of 2021 reading, my daughter convinced me to read two Dusti Bowling novels she inhaled in December: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 10-14). I’m not sure why these evaded me when they first came out a few years ago, because the characters—every single one—are absolutely delightful. (I’ll add that the first book would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

My late grandmother upheld, to the end of her days, that the biggest indicator of a life well lived is keeping a sense of humor about yourself. When we first meet Aven Green, our thirteen-year-old narrator—begrudgingly relocated to Arizona so her adoptive parents can run a washed up, Western-themed amusement park called Stagecoach Pass (a more unique setting for a novel you won’t find)—two things are established right off the bat.

First, Aven has no arms. She was born without them, and she compensates by using her feet to eat, dress herself, play guitar, ride horses, care for tarantulas, you name it. It’s astonishing.

Secondly, Aven is HILARIOUS. Her quick-witted, sometimes sarcastic, often self-deprecating humor comes through in her blog, “The Unarmed Middle Schoolers Guide to Survival,” as well as in her banter with friends and family. The laugh-out-loud moments in these novels are too numerous to count.

Aven’s sense of humor, particularly about her armlessness, is a critical component of her resilience. Making light of things helps to avoid being crushed by the weight of her disability, by the Herculean effort required to do the most basic human tasks. Poking fun of herself helps to put others at ease, allowing for a connection based on similarity, not difference. But Aven’s humor also belies a vulnerability and fear she would rather not think about. Did I mention she eats in the bathroom stalls to avoid being stared at in the cafeteria?

Apart from cracking a mystery and uncovering family secrets at Stagecoach Pass, the first book is largely concerned with Aven’s new friendship with a boy named Connor, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. With tics like barking, Connor’s fear of being “othered” makes him actively avoid social situations. Their friendship is beautiful and essential, not just for the joy it brings both parties, but for the way it forces Aven to recognize things about herself that she’s quick to judge in Connor.

In the second book, Aven starts high school, along with 2,299 other kids (but without Connor, who moves to the other side of town). Despite her renewed confidence from middle school, she is unprepared for the viciousness she encounters. Accustomed to being on the receiving end of whispers and looks, she is now aggressively, devastatingly bullied by a popular jock, who feigns a romantic interest in her. Once again, Aven’s sense of humor proves her secret armor—along with help from punk rock (my daughter spent an afternoon holed up in her room listening to every band referenced in the story), Comic Con, and new friendships—but not before she tries to push everyone away. Can Aven learn to set aside her infectious humor on occasion to make room for candid, forthcoming conversations with those who might offer her the emotional support we all crave?

One of my favorite things about reading a book my daughter has already read is the way she stalks my progress. (“What part are you on, Mommy?” “Oooooh, just wait until the next chapter.” “I think you’re going to change your mind about that character when you see what happens next.”) These conversations are a special type of bonding—after all, how often do our kids have the one up on us?!—that I’m eager to hold on to while I can.

But I also do it for the chance to nudge my children to think about what they’ve read. To process a story by talking to me about their reactions. (I don’t dare call it a book club unless there are special snacks involved.) What struck me the most about my daughter’s reaction to Aven Green is how quickly she normalized Aven’s disability. Halfway into the first book I was still exclaiming aloud, whoa, can you imagine getting something off a grocery store shelf with your feet?! And my daughter’s response was always, Mommy, she uses her feet the way we use our hands; if you didn’t have hands, you’d figure out how to use your feet, too. I kept pushing my daughter toward empathy—But it must be so hard for her!—until I realized that the way she saw Aven is precisely the way Aven wants to be seen. She doesn’t want ogles; she doesn’t want pity. She wants our acceptance. She wants to be liked for who she is on the inside, not what she does with her feet.

It turns out our kids—and their books—can teach us a few things, too.

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§ 2 Responses to “Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

  • aidantalkin says:

    Love your suggestions for connecting around books, even if not reading aloud. Our whole family read in succession “The Bear and the Nightingale” and my (13 yo) daughter was similarly interested in my progress. Highly recommend! As well, fantastic descriptions of the Cactus books, which now I want to read whether or not my kid does!

    • thebookmommy says:

      Love that your whole family read a book in succession. I’m good about doing it with one kid at a time but I love the idea of getting both kids (and the hubby!) involved with the same book!

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