When my eldest daughter turned six, all she wanted in the world was a pet. My husband and I were already scrambling to manage three kids under six and two more-than-full-time jobs. A pet was the last challenge we wanted to take on. However, we knew how important a pet was to her. And we wanted to be able to give one to her.
So, we talked with her about the work involved in caring for a pet. We talked every night for weeks. The negotiations were epic. We discussed responsibility and time and opportunity cost. (Yes, kids understand opportunity cost. “If we spend money on pet food, there will be less for frozen yogurt.”)
She rebutted our arguments by (rather dramatically) describing the love and cuddles and friendship a pet would provide. We vetoed dogs and cats. She countered with hamster. We researched small mammals together and came to an agreement: guinea pig.
According to every pet resource we consulted, guinea pigs are great starter pets for kids. They don’t mind being handled, they don’t run into the ductwork and die like hamsters, and they’ll eat all the parts of food my kids won’t: apple peels, broccoli stems, even watermelon rind.
Despite all this and despite having found the cutest tricolor fuzzball that ever lived at our local pet store, all did not go smoothly when Cutie Pie came home.
The kids were afraid of her. Afraid that her claws would scratch them, afraid she would nibble their clothes (or hair, or fingers), and afraid that she would run away. They watched her scurry about her cage from several arms’-lengths away, screeching every time she scrambled up and down her plastic ramp.
This from the kids I had to physically wrangle out of pet stores and zoos. My husband and I were at a loss.
I’m kind of a one-trick pony, so I chose to handle this the same way I handle most crises of emotion:
I sat next to Cutie Pie’s cage with the girls in my lap and at my side. I wove stories about a sweet, spunky guinea pig who liked to dress up, go on adventures, sneak out late at night, and even dance to disco.
The girls listened with rapt attention. They laughed hysterically at the idea of Cutie Pie dying a pink streak in her fur and going on tour with a rock band. They were equally enraptured with the idea of her sneaking into my diaper bag to join us on a trip to the farm.
They started talking to Cutie Pie about the stories, and when they talked to her, she squeaked back at them. Hands began to reach into her cage to pet her. Fear melted.
Have you ever heard a guinea pig purr? I assure you, they do. Well, ours does, anyway. Purrs and coos and squeaks along as the girls hold her in their laps and sing songs to her.
Soon, our nightly routine included Guinea Pig Story Time. We sat in a circle on the floor, knee to knee. I placed Cutie Pie on a bath towel between us, free to roam from girl to girl for petting and brushing and spinach, while I told stories of her latest escapades.
I will admit that not all the stories were of my own making. I borrowed liberally from The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Stewart Little. That didn’t matter. What mattered was the magic of story.
Story has the power to make scary things safe, to make the unknown knowable, and to make the foreign familiar.
The magic of story time.
The experience of watching my children change from fearing something to embracing it.
These are the very things that brought me to quit my successful physical therapy career and write stories instead.
These are the factors that drive me to advocate for books in every home, stories in every child’s hands.
These are the reasons I encourage not just literacy, but a LOVE OF READING.
Surely each of us can think of books that we felt spoke to us, that gave us strength, that made something frightening safer. (I’d list a bunch here, but I’d rather hear from all of you in the comments!)
Books, especially children’s books (most especially great children’s books), prepare our minds and hearts for the challenges of our world by letting us experience another world.
Books make the tough topics—like losing your parents, facing danger, being different, growing up—into something relatable and conquerable. From Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalumps to Harry Potter and Voldemort, characters in stories, big and small, help children name and face their fears.
There are moments when my oldest daughter closes a book —or even puts it in another room—because something about it has frightened her too much or felt too intense. (Similarly, she’s been known to hide in the kitchen pantry when My Little Pony gets too freaky. She’s a bit of a sensitive soul.)
When I see this happen, I know to talk with her about story. We talk about characters, conflict, and resolution. We discuss the storyteller’s ability to draw the reader into the moment. We consider what might happen next. We talk about what she would do if she was the main character, or what she would change if she was the author of the story. (Because, after all, we are all authors of our stories.)
Then, when she’s ready, we read the next chapter together. I want her to know that in story, as in life, it is okay to be scared. It is okay to care deeply what happens next.
And it is more than okay to face the next chapter with someone you love beside you.