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May 9, 2018

Debut Author Julie Clark Talks About Reading Through the Exhaustion of New Motherhood

Julie Clark’s newly released debut novel, THE ONES WE CHOOSE, is about a boy desperate to find his place in the world, a mother coming to terms with her own past, and the healing power of forgiveness. In her blog post, to which many parents will be able to relate, Julie talks about reading wordless picture books with her children from the perspective of a young mother who was sometimes so exhausted at the end of the day that “creating engaging dialogue between a family of bears living in a tree” could prove to be quite the challenge.



When I was newly pregnant with my oldest son, one of the things I most looked forward to was reading to him at bedtime. I imagined the two of us snuggled together, his sleepy-lidded eyes drooping as I whispered beloved words from books I remembered from my own childhood.

I stocked up on wordless books, stories that my child and I could co-create together. You know the ones, heavy cardboard pages filled to the edges with brightly colored scenes --- a dog babysitting a baby, a young bear cub hiding from his father --- but no words. As an educator, I knew the research behind books like that, how they developed a child’s sense of story, how they encouraged language acquisition and a more fluid back-and-forth between parent and child. But what I didn’t realize until I was in the thick of it was how exhausted I’d be. Both of my boys struggled to sleep --- one refusing to stay in bed at bedtime, the other waking in the middle of the night (multiple times) to play. At the end of the day, I could barely say “Please pass the peas,” let alone create engaging dialogue between a family of bears living in a tree.

So of course, both of my boys fell in love with one of those wordless books called GOOD NIGHT, GORILLA. For those not familiar with it, it’s the story of a gorilla who steals the zookeeper’s keys and unlocks his cage, then frees all the other animals in the zoo so they can follow their beloved zookeeper home. He doesn’t see the animals tip-toeing behind him down the path toward home, he doesn’t hear them enter his house, climb the stairs, or sneak into bed with him. It’s his wife, who’s already asleep, who notices. Who takes the animals back to the zoo and puts them all back into their cages.

I started out trying to stay true to the story the author intended.
And all the zoo animals loved their zookeeper so much, they wanted to follow him home every night.

But my own sleep deprivation soon made me impatient.
The zookeeper doesn’t see the animals right behind him! They’re following him home! Pay attention, Zookeeper! This happens every night!

(I’ll not mention the short time I tried to game the system, hoping if I made the story shorter, we could all get to bed faster.
The gorilla stole the keys. The animals followed, but ended up back in their cages. The end.
Author’s note: It didn’t work).

Around the 7,000th reading, I became snippy with the animals, who didn’t seem to realize that it’s a lot of work to take care of others all day, and that when it’s bedtime, it’s in everyone’s best interests to go to bed and stay in bed.

The animals didn’t know that sleep deprivation was a form of torture, and that the zookeeper and his wife would be too tired to perform their jobs the next day. Staying in bed is important to everyone’s mental health!

And finally, I turned my frustration toward the zookeeper himself, who sleeps on, while his wife is the one to climb out of bed and deliver the animals back to their cages, one at a time.

And so, the zookeeper’s wife hauls herself out of bed, wipes the sleep from her eyes, glares at her husband who is already snoring, and slides her feet into her slippers. She was always the one who did all the work. Why should this be any different? And so, she takes the gorilla by the hand and leads them all back to their cages, as she did every night. “Who knows?” she says to herself. “Maybe I’ll pick up a bottle of wine from the liquor store on my way home.”

My boys are older now, both of them independent readers who love nothing more than a quiet corner and a good book. We’ve moved on from read-alouds to silent reading, the three of us in a room together, each lost in our own books. But those early reading experiences live on inside each of them, cropping up in unexpected ways. The other day, my youngest came across a passage in a book that was published nearly 40 years ago, prompting him to ask, “Why is it always the mom in this story who has to clean up the mess before the dad gets home? Also, why isn’t she at work?” I like to think I’ve planted a seed, that my near-catatonic ramblings have taken root inside both of their minds and started to sprout. I knew reading aloud to my kids would nurture them as readers. I had no idea it would also nurture them as humans.