Photo by Helen Montoya Henrichs.
My 10-year-old son told me last night that he thinks he’s done with baths. Baths where he soaked while I read him stories. For the last 10 years.
I knew it was coming—he is, after all, 10—but you’re never ready, are you? It’s so hard to watch children grow up.
Over the years we’ve read Judy Blume, Rudyard Kipling, R.L. Stine, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Downing Hahn, J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Stroud, Jonathan Auxier, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.B. White, and so many more. We’ve read about space flight, aliens, the intricacies of caves, the world’s newest inventions, the Civil Rights movement, desegregation, foreign cultures, natural life, environmentalism and preservation, and so much more.
These discussions we’ve had over these books and periodicals and stories, the moments we laughed or got choked up (usually me) or learned something entirely new, the ways we were shaped, together, by what we read, together, are forevermore imprinted on who we are.
We will never lose that. Neither will we lose the memories associated with what we’ve read, even if that sacred reading time has now passed. Digested words, like memories, live in us forever.
My son will still join his brothers for a read-aloud time in our house. Our family gathers around a story every evening. But his bath time, when it was just him and me, has become shower time. He has become an adolescent. I have become an outsider of sorts.
But we will always have the last 10 years of bonding over stories.
Pick up a book. Read to your child. You’ll never be sorry for the small moment in time when you put down your phone or your to-do list or all those dirty dishes and forged unbreakable bonds around a story.
I stood on a hill,
a dandelion in my hand.
The wind lifted
the first feathery petals
from the stem,
and for a moment,
they stared at me,
my wishes twirling
the rest of them,
sent my white wishes
wherever it is
I’m raising six sons who will one day become white men. What with the climate of our country and the ripples of racism that have begun to creep from half-concealed corners, I have compiled a list of required reading for my sons that will teach them about both black history and growing up black in America.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life, by Ashley Bryan
A poignant look at the lives of slaves, compiled from original slave auction and plantation estate documents. Shows clearly the objectification of slave lives and a clear picture of how America dehumanized the black race. And yet black men and women held tightly to their dreams. A book full of information, sorrow, and hope.
Freedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
This picture book highlights an important part of African American history: the capacity to hope and dream and find joy in a difficult place. It’s a sobering look at what slaves did Monday through Saturday, and then a celebratory look of the freedom they had for a day—Sunday, a day when the slaves of Louisiana would gather in Congo Square and reconnect to their heritage of song and dance. Told beautifully through verse and captivating pictures, this picture book is an important addition to any collection.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Kadir Nelson
This picture book showcases Harriet Tubman’s courage, strength, and utter devotion to helping the cause of her enslaved people. She was called the modern day Moses, and the book follows her mark on black Americans and their future.
Unbound, by Ann E. Burg
Grace is a slave called to work in the Big House. While she’s compliant on the outside, inside she is asking many questions: how can white people own other people? Why are her people sold on an auction block? Who gave white people the right to separate families from each other? When her master talks about selling her mama, she decides it’s time to take the risk and make a run for it. Burg shines a light on a time period in American history during which runaways sought a place to call home in the Great Dismal Swamp.
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds
Ghost, Castle Cranshaw, is chosen for a middle school track team, and while he tries to learn the ins and outs of running for a team, he deals with his own emotional reasons for running—which include a father, a gun, and a terrifying fear of dying. Reynolds provides a significant look into the lives of children growing up in dangerous situations.
Patina, by Jason Reynolds
Patty (Patina) joins Ghost (in the above story) on the elite middle school track team. She runs for her mother, who lost her legs, and also runs to outrun her fears: that she will be like her mother. Her challenges culminate into an emotional climax that proves the power of love and friendship.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Starr Carter witnesses her childhood best friend, Khalil, killed by a police officer. Khalil was unarmed, and now Starr must decide whether to speak or remain silent—and the consequences that come with each decision.
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister writes a series of journal letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after several incidences in which police kill unarmed black men. Jus tries to figure out if King’s teachings are relevant in the world today. And then, when the questions become personal, he must decide for himself what he chooses to do and believe.
Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez
In New London, Texas, during 1937, Naomi Fuller, a Mexican American, and Wash Fuller, a black American, navigate the inherent racism that exists in their small town, stepping over the color lines that separate them from those who are white. Love, tension, and tragedy mark this phenomenal book.
Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds
The entire book takes place in 60 seconds, an elevator ride during which a kid tries to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother. Told in narrative verse, this book is a revelation of teenage gun violence, revenge, and, ultimately, what it means to forgive.
All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendon Kiely
Two teenage boys, one black and one white, have to come to terms with a violent act that leaves their school, community, and the country on different sides of a racial war. A police brutality incident against a black boy sets the book off into a whirlwind of questions, anger, and reparation.
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson
Michael Eric Dyson, in this short and emotional book, provides everything a white person needs to know about the black struggle for equality—one that exists even today. He begins with a compelling plea: “The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A lyrically disturbing and yet moving book about America’s racial history and current crisis. Written as a letter to his son, Coates examines race and what it’s like to inhabit a black body—and what we might do to improve the future.
Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi
An incredibly comprehensive look at America’s racist history and the racist thoughts and beliefs that still exist today. Kendi uses the stories of five major American intellectuals to provide a frame for his narrative history—Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois and anti-prison activist Angela Davis. Fascinating look at what has brought us to our current situation—and what we can now do about it.
We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A collection of new and old essays, Coates explores our more recent racial history, from the election of our first black president and then the backlash that fueled a completely different election. Riveting and powerful, it provides a deep and incisive look at the racial issues of modern America.
The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
A fascinating narrative about the migration of almost six million black people during the years between 1915 and 1970. She follows the lives of three individuals and their stories—what contributed to their migration and what they found when they got where they were going.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, by James McBride
Though it’s a narrative examination of James Brown’s life—the true, unedited story—McBride engages in commentary on the racial world in the American south, which provides a valuable look at the circumstances that shaped James Brown and others who grew up black in the south. Kill ‘Em and Leave is one of the most fascinating and well-written biographies I’ve read.
*The above are an affiliate links. I only recommend books that I personally enjoy. I actually don’t even talk about the books I don’t enjoy, because I’d rather forget I ever wasted time reading them. But if you’re ever curious whether I’ve read a book and whether I liked or disliked it, don’t hesitate to ask.
I don’t get many days off from children. Who am I kidding? The days-off count has been dialed to zero for the last several years.
But every now and then, my responsibilities as an author call me away for a night or two. When I’m called away, I celebrate—I mean, I miss them a ton. One thing I never do, though, is worry about Husband’s capabilities as a parent.
Husband is a great father. He romps with his children and rubs courage into their chests every night and talks to them about their kid concerns and always has something wise and profound to say to them.
However. There are some things that even he has trouble with when I’m gone. I chalk it up to Being a Man. Things like turning off lights, flushing toilets, putting clothes in the laundry hamper, staying safe—they’re all reasons why boys and men need a woman in their lives. I’m glad for that, mostly. Actually, no I’m not. Turn off the lights. Flush the toilets. Pick up your own clothes. And for God’s sake, if you think something would be cool, don’t try it. It’s probably not, and you’ll just end up with a cracked femur.
So for the days that I’m gone, I have a small stack of stapled papers, titled, “How to survive when Mama is away,” populating a file folder that sits on our kitchen counter. The guide begins with “Dear Boys” and contains tips like:
1. This is how you turn out a light.
I know there seems to be a magic fairy who flies around flicking the light switches in all those empty rooms to the “off” position, but don’t you worry. This isn’t a hard trick, by any means. It just takes a little practice.
Do you see the white miniature lever surrounded by what looks like a white rectangle? That’s called a light switch. When the lever is up, that means the light is on and our electricity meter is, minute by minute, climbing higher and the earth is slowly dying because of your negligence. When you leave a room and there is no one else in the room, the lever should move to the down position. That would be “off.” If, on the other hand, you’ve just finished brushing your teeth and your little brother is still peeing, the lever should remain “up.” I know you sometimes get these two confused, and I totally understand. It’s fun to hear, “Hey, turn the light back on!” But it’s definitely not funny. Trust me. One of these days you’ll get your due, and then you won’t be laughing.
I’m sure that once you practice a little (and you’ll have several opportunities, now that the magic fairy is gone for a couple of days), the muscle memory will kick in. After all, you used to turn lights off all the time when you were a baby. Up, down, up, down. On, off, on, off. You’ll remember the joy you used to get out of actually making a room go dark when you weren’t inside it.
And if you don’t, there’s an easy solution to that, too. Your allowance.
2. This is how you flush a toilet.
I appreciate that you want to save water and energy, but I can assure you that the environment will not be terribly harmed by a couple of flushes a day. The aroma of our house, on the other hand? It could be called The Dead Swamp.
When you’ve done your business, stand up (if you’re not standing already). Turn around to face the toilet (if you’re not already facing it). Put the seat and, preferably, the lid down. On the left side, near the top of the porcelain is a silver lever. That’s the flusher. All you have to do is push it down. You don’t even have to hold it down, just a quick flick and you’re done. So easy.
And now no one has to lift the lid and find an unwelcome present that shoots stink bombs toward their nose.
3. This is where your dirty clothes go.
We have what is called a hamper for all of your dirty clothes. It’s a tall, dark basket sitting in the hallway between your rooms. There’s also a basket downstairs if you happen to strip down in the living room. And there’s another in Mama and Daddy’s bathroom. In it you’ll likely only see Mama’s clothes, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The hamper is where your dirty laundry goes. Your dirty laundry does not belong in your closet. It does not belong in rolled-up wads under your bed. It does not belong in my bed, because if I wanted my pillow to smell like Dirty Sock, I would use my own stinky ones.
All you have to do to make sure clothes get in this thing called the hamper is bend over, pick your sweaty shirt up off the floor and drop it in the hamper. You don’t even have to walk anywhere, because you were so close when you threw it on the floor.
4. This is how you take a bath.
Unfortunately, while I’m gone, I won’t be standing over you to make sure you soap up your hair and clean under your neck and wash between your toes. So this is how it’s done: Take a squirt of soap and lather your hair. Take another squirt and lather it all over your body. Take another for your lower half. And another for your feet, because they need it.
Fill the cup sitting on the side of the bathtub with water and then dump it on your head to wash the soap out of your hair. Do it as many times as it takes to get all the soap off your body. It might take longer than you’d like, but, trust me, a few more minutes of rinsing is better than waking up in the morning looking like Donald Trump.
5. This is how you drain bath water.
I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into your bathroom to see yesterday’s murky bath water still stagnating in the tub. I usually stick my hand in that grainy, cloudy, slimy water, trying not to gag at the grossness, and drain it before it’s time for your bath. I know this is probably why you think the water magically disappears, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t really. And now that I’ll be gone for a few days, it’s a perfect opportunity for you to practice the Art of Draining Bathwater. There is a small amount of work required to successfully execute this task.
When you’re finished washing (per my instructions), stand. Dry off BEFORE getting out of the bath, turn around, bend over, and pull the silver or bronze plug at the foot of the tub, directly underneath the faucet. Listen to the water slowly sucking out, and imagine something is coming up out of the drain to get you. Run away screaming.
(You don’t have to do that last part.)
6. This is how you close a door.
Do you see the handle sticking out from the door? It’s called a doorknob, and it’s what you use to open the door. Funny thing is, you can also use it to close the door. Grab it on your way out and swing it the opposite way required for opening. It’s easy to remember, because close is the opposite of open. So it stands to reason that to close a door, you’ll have to use the opposite motion you used to open the door. Make sense?
The door will make a satisfying “click” when it’s truly closed. Listen for the click, and you’ll be well on your way to closing a door.
Other ways you can accomplish this same feat are using a hip bump when you walk in the door, aiming a back kick on your way out or executing a full-body lean in whichever direction you need. I don’t really care what method you use, so long as it shuts.
Now that you know how to do all of these things, it’s time for the most important one of all.
7. This is how not to die.
Do not jump from a swing when you’ve reached twenty feet in the air.
Do not climb on a glass-top table that’s only held in place by (inefficiently spaced) suction cups.
Do not turn out a light when your brother is still peeing.
Do not play dodgeball with a baseball.
Do not try to jump over the backyard fence when you’re jumping on the trampoline and someone double dog dares you to.
If fact, do not go through with any double dog dare. Being called a coward is better than being called dead.
Do not leap from the top bunk to the bottom one when the beds are perpendicular and the ceiling fan is on.
Do not try to ride a fan when it’s turned on.
Do not ride your bike blindfolded.
I’m sure I’ve missed something. There are a million ways to die when you’re a boy, but that’s why I’m leaving you to the meticulous care of your daddy.
(On second thought, maybe I should brainstorm a bit longer.)
This is an excerpt from This Life With Boys, the third book in the Crash Test Parents series. To get access to some all-new, never-before-published humor essays in two hilarious Crash Test Parents guides, visit the Crash Test Parents Reader Library page.
The maroon Honda Pilot was ambling through the school zones, keeping to the speed limit while other cars zoomed around it, oblivious to flashing yellow lights, or perhaps simply in too much a hurry to heed. I followed the rule-keeper, because I’m a rule-keeper myself.
This car was going slightly slower than the speed limit, but I was on my way back from a doctor’s appointment and had nowhere important to be. The car provides a good thinking space, quiet, confined, automatic. So I remained behind the Pilot not only because of my non-hurry but also because I’d noticed a purple Crayola marker sitting on the lip of the Pilot’s bumper. I wanted to see how long that purple marker would hang on through the starts and stops of traffic. I wanted to see it roll off the bumper and into the street, where it would likely embark on another journey, settling against the curb of the street or, less happily, smashed beneath the tires of another car.
But that purple marker held on, until the Pilot turned left on Knights Cross, where it disappeared from my view. It had held on for two miles—maybe more.
Hold on like the purple marker.