I often read children's literature in the hopes it will make me a better fiction writer, but I never thought reading a middle-grade book would make me a better parent. That is until I read Kate DiCamillo's new novel Raymie Nightingale. This book (which just came out April 12, 2016) is by turns sad, sweet, funny, charming, and wise.
It's about three young girls—Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly— who spend a summer learning how to twirl batons, reading to old people, trying to rescue a cat, going to a funeral, and protecting each other from the bumps and scrapes of life. Raymie's father has recently run off with another woman, and she's still reeling from his departure and trying to figure out a way to get him to return. It's a story that feels both familiar and fresh all at once, and it's one that Kate DiCamillo drew heavily from her own life to write. In her introduction to the story, Kate tells readers that her own father left home, that she made good friends who "helped [her] understand that the world is beautiful," and that "Raymie's story is the absolutely true story of [her] heart."
I was deeply moved both by the story and by Kate's personal connection to it, but in all that, there wasn't one thing that tangibly taught me how to be a better parent (except maybe to remind me that I'd like my kids to do more good deeds).
What this book really did that impacted my parenting is remind me of what it's like to be a child. And that's a wonderful thing for any parent to recall as often as possible.
Because as much as we try to manage it, it's easy to forget that childhood can be tenuous, scary, overwhelming, and wonderful all at once. As I read Raymie Nightingale, I relived my own childhood moments of fierce joy, trembling worry, painful loss, glorious friendship, ridiculous schemes, and so much more.
All that remembering made me cry a bit, and it also made me wonder what sort of childhood my children are having. I think they're having a good one. Their material needs are met. My husband and I work hard to create a positive home environment where they are enriched, loved, and valued. But sometimes I get so wrapped up in the logistics of parenting—going to the grocery store, cooking dinner, paying bills, doing my job so I can pay bills, worrying about the future, setting limits, enforcing rules, and helping my kids get through the day— that it's easy to see my kids as these little beings to be acted upon. They become Those-Whom-I-Must-Parent rather than just being the two wonderful human beings they are.
And so after reading Raymie, I took a step back from all the work and management of child raising and tried to listen to the stories of my children's hearts. I talked to them about what scares them, what makes them feel hope, and what they wonder about. Now, when my husband and I argue, I remember my own childhood worries about my parents' arguments, and so I'm quicker to reassure my children that all is well.
I've also been trying to remember the schemes and dreams of my own childhood and see my children's actions in light of those matrices. Rather than blindly punishing them for something, I'm now asking them the 'whys' behind their actions.
Every day and in every interaction, I'm trying to remember the child I once was and to think of the adults I hope my children will become.
And I thank Kate DiCamillo and Raymie Nightingale for that.
I'll leave you with this: Read Raymie Nightingale. Read it once on your own and then read it to your children. It's a glorious book, and it will remind you—to paraphrase Kate's words—to tell your children daily that the world is beautiful and that you stand with them, beside them, and next to them. Always.