I tried reading her Stuart Little first. Nothing doing: “Mommy, this needs way more pictures,” she told me. Knowing how much she likes animals and how much I like E.B. White, I next tried Charlotte’s Web. That met with slightly more success, but a few pages in, she stopped me and said she’d rather read something else. I tried again with Little House on the Prairie, but she started throwing a tantrum before I could even open it up. “Mommy, I’ve told you: NO CHAPTER BOOKS!” So I sort of gave up.
And of course, as with everything else related to kids, Ruby recently decided she was ready for chapter books – on her own terms. We read our first full chapter of a chapter book last night, at Ruby’s insistence, and she was sad when we had to stop.
But the book isn’t Matilda or Cricket in Times Square or Trumpet of the Swan (I really like E.B. White, OK?) or any of my cherished childhood favorites. Instead, it is a truly bizarre Australian novella called Pobby and Dingan. She saw the movie first, and despite the fact that even I think it is achingly slow, it captivated her so much that my mom bought her the book it was based on.
The premise of the novel (and the movie) is that a little girl, Kellyanne, living in a opal-mining town in Australia has no friends but contents herself by playing with her two imaginary friends, Pobby (who has a limp) and Dingan (who has an opal for her bellybutton). Her alcoholic father, who is constantly and fruitlessly chasing the dream of getting rich by striking opal, takes Pobby and Dingan to the opal mines one day and loses them. He tries to pretend that he hasn’t left them behind, but Kellyanne isn’t fooled. She is so distressed by the loss of her friends that she takes ill and ultimately has to be hospitalized.
In the meantime, her brother, Ashmol, who has long been scornful of Pobby and Dingan, undertakes a search to find them in hopes of curing his beloved sister. The whole town gets involved, rallying behind Kellyanne and validating the power of her imagination. After Kellyanne confesses to Ashmol that she is sure Pobby and Dingan have died, Ashmol goes on a late-night mission to the opal mines, where he finds the “bodies” of Kellyanne’s imaginary friends. He knows it’s them because he finds a valuable opal that Kellyanne confirms was Dingan’s bellybutton.
At Kellyanne’s urging, Ashmol sells the opal/bellybutton to pay for a no-expenses-spared funeral for Pobby and Dingan, and the whole town turns out to listen to a sermon about the power of faith and believing in the unseen. A week later (spoiler alert, as if anyone is going to read this book based on my sterling review thus far), Kellyanne succumbs to her illness and is buried between her imaginary friends. Ashmol then frequently goes around talking to Kellyanne much as Kellyanne used to go around talking to Pobby and Dingan, and they all live as happily ever after as impoverished drunken Australian opal-miners can be after the death of a close family member and her imaginary companions.
Ruby freaking loves it.
I don’t know what the appeal is, frankly – not just in general, but to Ruby in particular. Ruby has never had imaginary friends of her own, and when she plays, her play is very realistic: We play restaurant or tea party or emergency room – or lately, through an extremely unfortunate lapse in judgment on my part, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. She likes to color things the correct colors: Grass is green. Sky is blue. Ariel’s hair is red. When she was about 2, she told a coworker of mine who asked if her blanket had a name: “No, don’t be silly. Blankets don’t have names because they can’t talk because they don’t have mouths.” This fanciful book is not something I ever would have thought would appeal to my down-to-earth little girl.
But, as I keep learning, I just need to follow Ruby’s lead. The important thing isn’t what we’re reading; the important thing is that we’re reading, and even more important, that we’re snuggling up in bed together and connecting at the end of the day. So if she wants Pobby and Dingan, Pobby and Dingan it shall be, and even if the book isn’t my favorite, I’m absolutely fascinated by watching Ruby develop her own tastes and interests and preferences. (But I’m still keeping the E.B. White and Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder on her bookshelf. One day, maybe …)