I didn’t mean to offend—I promise you this. It’s just that he’s a sweet boy and incredibly bright and engaging, and really, the book didn’t cost that much.
This is what I’d planned to say to the mother of my daughter’s classmate—a little boy who I’ve come to adore. I’d seen him in her class before, but I talked to him one-on-one for the first time at our school’s Scholastic Book Fair last year. My first conversation with King (I’m using a description of little man instead of his name, to protect the innocent) went a little something like this:
Me: Do you need help finding a book?
King: I’m not going to buy a book.
Me: Well, why not?
King: I don’t like to read.
Me: *I play-clutch my heart and die 2,000 deaths* What?! You don’t like to read? That’s the craziest thing I’ve EVER heard—a kid who doesn’t like to read! Do you know what you’re missing out on? Do you know how many great stories you don’t get to hear because you won’t pick up a book? Have you any idea…
Ten minutes and 40 great-books-I-know-a-kid-your-age-would-just-love suggestions later, King agreed to read with me the back covers of a few offerings to see if they kinda sounded like something he might slip and read if forced. He giggled at the first few pages of “The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid,” and wondered aloud how hard it would be to go a whole day without saying a word, like the kids in Andrew Clement’s “No Talking.” He even thought it would be cool to work on a school newspaper, like the lead character in Walter Dean Meyers’ “Darnell Rock Reporting.” By the time we finished talking and laughing and exploring, he was reasonably convinced that maybe, just maybe, reading wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Small problem, though: His mom, he said, hadn’t given him money to buy a book. “No problem,” I said simply. “Pick out one book, and I’ll buy it for you. All you have to do is promise me that the next time you see me, you’ll tell whether you liked it or not.”
Well let me tell you: Every time I see that little boy now, which is often because I’m always up there at that school, he’s got something to say about yet another book he’s reading. He’s into fantasy and mystery and humor books—loves the magic of the stories and how they make him laugh out loud. This child, a beautiful little 4th grade black boy, is officially in love with the written word.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I met up with King at this year’s Scholastic Book Fair and he told me he wasn’t going to purchase a book.
Me: Well why not? There’s lots of wonderful books here today.
King: My mother didn’t give me money.
Me: Well, you know the drill—go on ahead and pick out something and Ms. Denene will get it for you.
King: I can’t. My mom will get really mad if I let you do that.
He was so stiff when he said it—and he had tears in his eyes. Turns out his mom was pissed that some lady bought her kid something without her permission.
The hell? I was undone when I heard this madness; what in the world kind of mother, I fumed (on the inside, of course), would get mad at her son for accepting the gift of a book? In this day and age, when little black boys who’d much rather play Madden and watch Lil’ Wayne videos outnumber damn near 1,000 to one little black boys who get pleasure from reading?
I really had to fix my face on this one, and, at the same time, say something encouraging to King, who, by this point, was tearily watching his classmates skip out of the fair, book purchases in hand.
Me: “I’ll talk to your mom, okay?” I blurted out.
King: Really? You promise?
Yup, that was me and my big mouth in action. I'd just told the boy I was going to step to his mother and make her let me buy him a book.
Later, when I recounted the story to Nick, he was quiet for a moment. “Maybe,” he said simply, “you need to think about how you’d feel if somebody bought books for the girls without your permission after you told them you didn’t have any money to buy them. Pride, babe.”
Yup. As usual, I didn’t think of it that way. I was so focused on the high of getting a boy hooked on books that I hadn’t considered how my actions could have been misinterpreted by his mom—and how she may have thought they made her look in her son’s eyes. And for that, I was deeply sorry.
This is what I told her a few nights ago, when our kids’ class met for an evening activity. I introduced myself and told her how amazing I thought her son was, and asked her if it would be okay if I talked to him about books and, from time to time, slipped him an age-appropriate novel or two just to see what, in a 4th grade black boy’s mind, constitutes a good book. “No pressure,” I insisted. “I won’t go crazy. Just a book or two that we can discuss whenever I see him here at the school.”
“Of course you can give him books,” she said, smiling. “How could I argue with free books?”
Exactly. Who can argue with free books?
Both of us looked at King; his grin was infectious—worth every cent of the cost of his new book, times a million.