06/25/2014 06:21 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Summer Reading with Our Daughters

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A pile of books, heaped one on top of another, the literary disarray of childhood. That's our coffee table. The titles of these books are like the children who read them, noisy, full of bumps and beeps, books alive with mischievous cats wearing striped red and white hats, cats who undermine the order of an adult figure who is never fully human, often absent, mostly known by her legs and high heels.

I notice now that some of my magazines are mixed in, too: The Nation and the The Economist (for the "balance" or, more likely, schizophrenic perspective) along with Horrid Henry and Hooey Higgins and the Shark. Some boast the Caldecott seal, others show a different sort of seal, of leaves creased and torn, of stains from greasy fingers, of countless re-runs, re-lived and re-read every time as if it was the first time.

I know people, grown-ups, who become attached to these children's books, attached to the sound and the poetry of their reading. I suppose I will always remember the way my 19-month-old daughter, Iris, grabs a magazine I'm reading or slaps the laptop shut, as she rearranges my reading habits with yet another rendition of What Shall I Paint? and I repeat, from the first page, "What shall I paint today?" and the answer on the next page, "Let's paint a parrot!"

And Iris, sitting on my lap, twists around to look at my face, to see my smile, to hear how the voice inflects the words, how the word opens the voice.

Our two older daughters, seven and nine years of age, read books now, almost devouring them, especially the dark humor of Roald Dahl. Our house at night, after the little ones have gone to bed, is often still, still with the sound of intent concentration, a book in hand, or a magazine, or a computer.

Reading has become more individual, more tailored to our specific interests and tastes. More silent, over all. Although not as often, we do still read together...

Just now, inspired by their grandad who, with the girls, read aloud in its entirety Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we're following suit, taking turns reading from the adventures of Huck Finn and Jim, as they float down the Mississippi.

The girls laugh, recognizing Huck's irony and wit, smiling impishly. No pictures as such, but a tender prod of humor tickles us through the words, the speaking of them.

There are things in Twain that I struggle to "speak" out loud, to explain to my daughters; maybe I struggle to explain them to myself: the way Jim and Huck are, at once seemingly best friends, and yet, still divided by slavery and racism. I hear Jim's earnest cry for freedom, as they look for a city named Cairo, a city whose name means something like freedom for Jim even as it is haunted by the memory of a slave nation, Egypt.

I hear Huck's inner conflict, whether to betray the culture of slavery, to which he is still beholden, or betray a man who has, through common trials and joys, become his friend, or become so close to a friend that he can feel the way friendship strips away false appearances, opening him to more authentic humanness.

Books can do this, by slanting the light of perspective, the way Dr. Seuss shifts the angle of our "coventional" adult's world to a child's world. It's an act of justice, really. The worldview that claims perfect coherence is turned on its ear; the enforcers of that worldview turn out to be more tragic than complete.

Maybe this supplies a clue to the charm of Huck and Jim: their lives differently broken, they show a capacity to slant our more "conventional" perspectives with their peculiar truths. Together, they float down the Mississippi, on a raft, narrowly dodging a world that would imprison both of them, if it could. The river and the raft they share seem to shift the point of reference, from the cities, the religiosity of the churches, the systems of power and wealth, of greed and want, to the freedom of a river and two unlikely friends.

At the end of a particularly horrific encounter with a feuding family, Jim and Huck are reunited, Jim from his hiding place in a "water-mocassin swamp" and Huck from his "refuge" in the middle of a fueding clan, so long killing one another, they'd forgotten why.

Once they're back in the raft, Huck reflects:

I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

Could it be that a good story does that for us, carries us by a river that reaches for freedom? Helping us to flee swamps of fear and the feuds that rage in our own lives, battles and terrors that, for us too, can become "cramped up and smothery" but seem like all there is?

I am glad for the disarray of our coffee table. Maybe it's a little raft in a world too full of conventional politics, a raft salvaged from cast off pieces, caught in the currents of a deeper wisdom, a more authentic quest for freedom.