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Boys, books, and birth order

Different sons remember different favorites

Issue: "Kids' books," Dec. 2, 2006

Many people have joked or generalized about birth order: firstborn, a scholar; second, a jock; third, a game-show host; fourth, a salesman. When Susan Olasky asked me to name the favorites of John and myself, I asked if I could ask our four now-adult boys about their favorites: one small test of nature vs. nurture.

Son 1 (now a poet and an English teacher) was reading before he was 4 Little House on the Prairie. Now that he's an adult thinking back, he names only chapter books, including many I didn't know (maybe he found it more efficient to read alone?): The Great Brain, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Westing Game, and Good Night, Mr. Tom. He names no picture books, but I remember that the first time he heard Are You My Mother? he wept when the fledgling was scooped up by the Snort.

Son 2 (who now ministers in an inner-city setting, mainly among youth) lists only picture books, mostly Dr. Seuss ("I hope you weren't looking for the spiritual answer. These are what I remember.") He's the one who visualizes all sides of an object at one glance. This makes him good at building and design. It also means he sees many sides of each letter in each word on a page-dyslexia. He doesn't list chapter books, but I remember that he completed his first, Naya Nuki, after fourth grade. The Cross and the Switchblade grabbed him as he labored through it in eighth grade. Later, he asked a public librarian for help choosing a book. She asked, "What kind do you like?" He knew his genre: "Christian books about gang warfare."

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Son 3, now a songwriter, remembers The Picture Bible, Old Testament excerpts in comic book format: "I learned all my trivia from it." But his mother remembers another source too-for the script of one of his before-the-mirror performances. [Snarling, brandishing sword] "Come here, kid! I'm gonna feed you to the birds!" [Rapid turn, drop sword, become David] "Goliath! You come to me with sword and shield, but I come in the name of the Lord." He memorized his lines listening repeatedly to Stories That Live. The passionate power of words lent him a love for individual words: "Stephen Lawhead taught me what being quartered means."

Son 4, who now works in sales for a Christian publisher, names several books that are on others' lists-the plight of the youngest stuck with hand-me-downs?-but he remembers them happily and doesn't seem to feel put-upon. With one or another brother, he shares the Hardy Boys ("all of them"), P.D. Eastman, Dr. Seuss, David Wilkerson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Stephen Lawhead. He also has his own favorites: Wind in the Willows, Dangerous Journey, Old Yeller, Sherlock Holmes, White Fang.

-Noël Piper and her husband John live in Minneapolis and also have a school-aged daughter

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