Viral times call for viral measures. So in response to concerns about the mental health of teenagers and other children locked down in the pandemic, and with the advice of a few of the finest teachers and other grandparents I know, I persuaded our 13-year-old granddaughter, Lily, to engage in some old-fashioned, non-distance learning.
Other grandparents told me that they had been reading books with their grandchildren, usually by Zoom or some other app. But since we are blessed to live close to five of ours, it seemed more appropriate and more fulfilling to try to do it in person.
In late March, we began reading aloud the book “Anne of Green Gables.” A chapter a day. Safely 6 feet or more apart, usually in the garage but, weather permitting, in the driveway or the yard. Sometimes, on those welcome warm days, there was a Klondike Bar at the end of the chapter.
This wasn’t about benevolence or being the kindly grandpa with lots of loose change (like the headline in the Onion: “National Grandpa Council Allocates $300 Million to Provide Each American Some Walkin’ Around Money”).
I was bored, too, the golf courses were closed and it was usually too cold or wet to get into the garden.
“Anne of Green Gables” came endorsed by a good friend, Rose Costello, who remembered assigning it to students during the time she had been a reading teacher.
She loved the book, but after the first chapter, I had my doubts.
Long sentences. Big words. Too many adverbs.
A book that was written in 1908 about life on an island in northeast Canada and would have zero relevance to a young reader in Urbana today.
I was, to be sure, wrong.
It is a great story: orphan girl sent to live with an old spinster woman and her old bachelor brother who wanted an orphan boy to work on their farm.
But orphan girl is full of spunk and imagination and appreciation and looks beyond the hardships — particularly relevant today — to savor every bit of her life. Also relevant, she excels in school but easily slides into trouble, enjoys sleepovers with her good friend and is obsessed with her appearance, especially her hair.
This was not the kind of book I read when I was Lily’s age. I remember reading the Hardy Boys and books about Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks, not stories with long sentences littered with adverbs. But “Anne of Green Gables” is a good story and an enjoyable read, even if you’re almost dead as I am, judging by the pandemic guidelines that say people over 65 should be locked in a glass case and not breathed upon.
Above all, Lily loved it, much more than the second book we have taken up: “A Year Down Yonder” by the late Richard Peck.
"Anne," she explained, is more about the young girl and her thoughts and desires and adventures and less about Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. “A Year Down Yonder” is almost as much about the audacious grandmother as it is about the book’s 15-year-old protagonist, Mary Alice.
I like them both, and I especially like that “A Year Down Yonder” takes place in East Central Illinois. The book never says explicitly where the grandmother lives, but it drops several hints: the Wabash Railroad runs through town, and there are references to Milmine, Bement and a weekly newspaper known as the Piatt County Call. (Peck, who wrote two dozen children’s books and died in 2018, told an interviewer that the book takes place in Cerro Gordo, where his grandmother had lived.)
Next on our reading list is the much-acclaimed “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” followed by another Peck book, this one about a 13-year-old girl at the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago. After that, we have a long list of recommendations from friends and parents who enjoyed reading with their children and grandchildren. We’re either going to have to read faster or end up reading by Zoom when Lily is off to college.
Thankfully, there also are more grandchildren, like the 7-year-old in Champaign who likes to read “Dog Man” books to her grandfather in the front yard. As locked down as we may be this summer, there are still plenty of places to go in books and plenty of places and adventures to talk about once the book is finished.