One of the few things I anticipated, really reveled in, as an expectant mother, was the books I imagined my children choosing. I did not look forward to first steps, had low expectations in the “first words” department, and absolutely dreaded the thought of birthdays.
Two times, Scott read Winnie The Pooh to my swollen belly. We presented The Sneetches, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Henry and Mudge to our newborns, and we gloried in the first titles the children read independently.
We’ve been planning our kids’ libraries for years, pre-stocking our shelves with our own true loves. I’ve dreamed a steady diet of Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, J.K. Rowling, and Judy Blume. Scott has had his eye on The Hardy Boys and Horatio Hornblower.
I made the mistake of starting Diana Wynne Jones too soon, and now we’re stalled in Howl’s Moving Castle,because Sophie has bumped into the Witch of the Waste one time too many for my timid daughter. I’ve held a few things in reserve. Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry. I’ve been waiting until she could handle even Scooby Doo to present these favorite writers.
Mother’s Day weekend, we went to the beach.
I had set aside The Ocean at the End of the Lane for myself. It was almost the only Gaiman title I hadn’t read, and it was short. I wanted to absorb it when I could spend the day digesting. I’ve lied to several people, claiming to have already finished it so they wouldn’t hassle me, or worse, avoid talking about it in my presence.
I downloaded it for the beach trip, plunked the kids in back under headphones, and settled in for the drive south, which doubled in length thanks to a slow start followed by heavy rain. Early in the book, when the eleven year old Lettie Hempstock and the seven year old Neil Gaiman faced the flea who would become Ursula Monkton, a sound alerted me that I wasn’t the only audience. A glance in my rearview mirror showed that both children were listening intently.
I nearly turned it off.
But damn it, I’d been waiting nearly a full year to read this thing and I didn’t see another chance before July at the soonest. And too, the kids’ earphones, both ten year old Caroline’s and six year old Sam’s, dangled around their necks. Their Kindle and Leap Pad sat forgotten.
So I let it play.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!”
“What, Caroline? You’re interrupting the story.” I hit pause expecting to have to return to music, after all.
“Mom, it’s the Witch of the Waste! How did she get in THIS book?”
How does she know? We haven’t even gotten to the part …
“She’s … it’s … I …” Words globbed together, and I didn’t get it right. I don’t think she understood that Neil Gaiman adores Diana Wynne Jones’ writing the way that I adore Gaiman’s. I don’t think she fully grasped that The Witch of the Waste was facing those children because Gaiman harvested her, carefully pruned her twiggy edges, then planted her gently in his own forest in homage to one of his mentors. (Then shredded her to fuckall, because that’s what one does to evil witches.)
After that, there was no question of hitting stop. At the end, we remained fixed in the car at the beach, none of us ready to get out, absorbed instead in those last words. And when it was done and I finally tapped “exit”, Caroline asked, “Didn’t he write Coraline? Can we read that on the way home?”
I jammed my seatbelt in my rush to launch Audible again, babbling “Yes, yes, and after Coraline there’s Neverwhere, and then Stardust, and … and…things by other people, and….”
“Yeah,” she said. “All those other books you’ve got scattered around the house.”
Yes, Caroline. All those other books. Every single one.