I have no doubt bribery is a character flaw, but Elliott avoids reading, preferring computer time and a pad and pencil to draw. I long for him to discover places a book will take him, adventures and mysteries unfolding on paper, and characters, visiting his mind as friends, and, on occasion, as unwelcome guests.
Mostly, I want him to experience losing himself in a story, being caught up in a tale of a boy his age, walking the hills of Virginia to find his brother, conscripted as a soldier in the Civil War, or imagining himself a 12-year-old pioneer riding west in a covered wagon. I’d like for Elliott to look up from a book and shake his head, surprised to discover he is not living 150 years ago but is at home in his own bedroom.
So we sealed the deal, and Elliott’s first summer “read” turned out to be not a coming-of-age story, but a true account turned novel of a gorilla named Ivan, who lived the first 27 years of his life in a cage in a shopping mall in Washington state.
Ivan was one of a collection of animals showcased at the mall, the only gorilla. He never saw a likeness of himself until he was rescued and re-located to Zoo Atlanta.
His twin sister had died on the trip to the United States from the Congo where she and Ivan were captured. Since Elliott is a twin, I knew he would feel the sad pull of separation as he read the story of Ivan’s life.
It has a happy ending. Ivan is now known for his finger paintings and he signs his work with a thumb print. Best of all, he can roam around his zoo habitat and see himself mirrored in his new community.
If you’re thinking this is not a very complicated tale, hardly worthy of a bribe, you’re right, but it also matters that Ivan was freed because National Geographic told his story and the public outcry over a helpless animal confined to a cage in a shopping mall for 27 years, changed Ivan’s life.
Now Elliott knows the value of speaking out and he’s read about the shame of animal cruelty. I don’t want to make too much of morality lessons. They can come later, but it doesn’t hurt to understand one voice, multiplied by hundreds, insisting those who bring about change, do, can turn a cage into a plane ride to an oasis of care.
For now, it’s enough to know summer’s gift of reading has found a boy who put a check by one book, finished.
The summer reading lists for children entering middle school are a litany of books to suit history buffs and fantasy pilgrims. There are animal stories. Sci-fi and biographies reign. Poetry rhymes and one selection of number puzzles and riddles is cleverly titled: “The Grapes of Math.”
But it is the summer reading table for high school students I cannot pass without running my fingers over book titles. They are the passports of my youth, a few newcomers, but mostly novels freeing my summers past from boredom or loneliness on afternoons so hot that sidewalks burned bare feet like hot molasses.
Sharing space on the table are Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” both still stretching minds and breaking hearts, having brought the journey to acceptance and unconditional love flat-out to a front porch in an Alabama town where a young girl kept reading after the street lights came on.
Hopefully, Elliott has both books in his reading future. Granted, computer games are tough competition, but super fantasy heroes, slaying aliens, can’t hold a candle to the courage of Atticus Finch.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.