There are certain activities we do with our kids that have special resonance because we feel we are handing on part of ourselves, our talents, or our history. It might be a holiday dish you make once a year that you share with the next generation. You might love passing on your knowledge of needlepoint or chess, or re-reading your favorite book. Beth Kissileff started a mother/daughter book club, which is a fantastic idea. If anyone else has done anything like this, please let me know at email@example.com. I would love to share your experiences and your tips with other parents. Beth sent in the following essay about her first book choice and I love the way she analyzes her chosen book both from her persepective as an adult and a child.
The most fun part of having kids is getting to re-experience childhood. Watching Sesame Street , going sledding, eating gloppy chemically enhanced macaroni-and-cheese and loving the artificial orangeness of it, making your own Play Doh in completely surreal color hues with food coloring-and re-reading beloved books.
When a friend and I decided to start a mother daughter book group, I knew instantly what text we’d begin with. I adored Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins as a kid, so, without glancing at it as an adult, assigned it to the group.
What I remembered about reading the book as a child was the thrill of seeing how a girl survived on her own, without help from anyone else, on a deserted island. I carried a notion of the idyllic nature of life alone-no pesky younger brothers to tease you, or parents to nag. When I was a child, I thought the book’s protagonist had a great life.
I had forgotten how sad the book is. Karana, the protagonist, is left alone because her people need to flee the island they have lived on for centuries. Her father is killed by dishonest traders, and few adult males are left on the island after the battle. When the group decides to flee, Karana’s 6-year-old younger brother is accidentally left behind. She jumps from the boat with her entire people on it and swims back to the island where he is alone. The next day she finds his body-he has been killed by wild dogs.
Gruesome stuff for kids. And yet, the message of the book is an uplifting one, of survival and resilience. The heroine finds ways to save herself, and finds friends and companions among the companions. Karana even makes herself cool clothes-a fabulous cormorant skirt and sea-otter-cape outfit, accessorized with abalone shell necklaces and bone jewelry.
The interesting thing about the mother/daughter discussion was that the mothers liked the book much more than the daughters. Perhaps we know better than our kids the importance of resourcefulness, of being able to say to yourself in any situation, "I have everything I need to get by." Ultimately, isn’t that what we as parents want to bequeath to our children?
In the book, Karana realized that the wild dogs who have killed her brother have become bolder. She knew she needed to do something about the dogs if she is to live comfortably on the island. She set a fire and smoked a few dogs out of their cave and shot them with arrows. The leader was wounded, but survived. Karana took the wounded dog back to her compound, nursed him back to health, and made him her companion. This episode led to a discussion about the meaning of reconciliation and forgiveness. This was a dog who had killed her brother, yet she was able to make him her pet.
Karana is able to change herself in larger ways as well in her 18 years alone on the island. She overcomes her fear of making weapons, something that had previously been reserved for the men on the island. Being alone gives her opportunities to do things she would never have done otherwise.
One of the book’s most poignant moments occurs after Karana nurses a sea otter who has been wounded by hunters back to health. She decides that she does not want to do any unnecessary killing. O’Dell writes of Karana’s decision:Ulape would have laughed at me, and others would have laughed, too-my father most of all. Yet this is the way I felt about the animals who had become my friends and those who were not, but in time could be. If Ulape and my father had come back and laughed, and all the others had come back and laughed, still I would have felt the same way, for animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them the earth would be an unhappy place.
Perhaps it had been Karana’s sense of confidence that I had found so appealing when I was a kid. It is rare to find a girl so self-confident and in charge of designing her own life. She figures out, over the course of the book, how to take care of herself and enjoy her situation, making connections with animals and briefly, with a woman who accompanies a hunting party. I’d love to be able to shield my children from some of the horrid parts of life, but it is my job to equip them with tools for survival, so that they will always be able to say, "I can manage because I have the means to do this."
We don’t know what challenges lie ahead, for us, or for our children, but we can let them know that they are equipped to face them. Kids don’t have a sense of what difficulties they will be up against over the course of their lives. That, too, is one of the great joys of parenthood-seeing our children’s innocence and trying to let them have it as long as possible.
Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, Questioning Return . She has taught English literature and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. Her writing has appeared in The Forward , The Jerusalem Report, New York Jewish Week , Hadassah , Lilith , Zeek , Jewish Book World, and The Torah: A Women's Commentary . She loves to read with all three of her daughters .