A few months ago, a family of cats took residence in our bookshelf. While the family itself is fairly reticent, a boisterous youngster emerges each day to entertain our son Nikhil with his various feline adventures before returning to the confines of the pages where he dwells when the books are put away.
Entertaining Nikhil is a bit of a challenge. On one hand, his wants are few. He loves drives in the van, trips to Costco and the Mall, and episodes of “House Hunters” on HGTV. He loves the slides in playgrounds and short walks in our backyard. His day ends with a rendition of his favorite song on the piano by his sister. However, there are a lot of hours in between these activities and while Nikhil plays with select toys to a certain extent, it does get challenging for us to keep him occupied.
My wife and I love to read and we spent many happy hours reading to our daughter when she was young. We tried reading stories for Nikhil too but they just would not hold his attention. He would sign for us to stop and if we continued, he would get upset and try to grab the book from our hands. When we tried to have him flip through board books, he would consider the books as food for thought and chew on the cover or pages.
A little over a year ago, we made a breakthrough when we accidentally stumbled upon the fact that Nikhil likes to hear a story about him going to the mall. Since then, “Mall Story” is his favorite and we have to keep telling him that story over and over again. As much as he enjoys the story, telling him the same story, multiple times a day, day in and day out is getting a little old for us.
Covid and the resulting online classes led my wife to an interesting discovery. While sitting with him in one of his classes, she noticed that Nikhil was paying attention to a story that his teacher was reading to him. The story was about a cat named Pete and his trip to the Supermarket. We immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.
When Nikhil saw the book, he was excited! My wife read the story to him and Nikhil kept pointing at the pages and speaking excitedly in his own tongue. This was promising! We soon picked up a set of eight books in Costco and now we have a burgeoning collection of books to read to Nikhil.
Nikhil has favorites. While his choices seemed arbitrary at first, when we paid attention to the stories, we understood his reasoning. The story involving a trip to the supermarket was a no brainer. Nikhil loves going to any store but grocery stores are his favorite. His class used to go on periodic field trips to a nearby grocery store. Students were given lists and the staff would help the kids load their carts and check out items that were later used in class projects such as baking a cake in the classroom. Each time we go with Nikhil to the grocery store, he squeals with delight, sometimes startling and scaring other shoppers. When they see Nikhil and the broad grin on his face, they smile and carry on with their shopping. Nikhil does not take kindly to masks, so it has been about ten months since he last entered a store. No wonder Nikhil loves taking vicarious pleasure through Pete’s trips to the supermarket.
If there is one thing that Nikhil loves more than the grocery store, it is his school, hence it comes as no surprise that Nikhil’s other favorite book is “Rocking in My School Shoes”. The story describes Pete’s school day, starting with a ride in the school bus to entering the classroom. A visit to the library and lunch at the cafeteria is followed by a fun time at the playground where Pete slides down a slide in his red school shoes. A satisfying day comes to an end with Pete returning home on his school bus. Now Nikhil can’t read and while he can see the pictures, he enjoys it when the story is read to him. In all honesty, I enjoy listening to the story too. My wife has the knack of infusing the story with life. Pete’s excitement as he waits for the bus is echoed by the animated sing-song voice of my wife as she sings “I’m rocking in my school shoes, I’m rocking in my school shoes, I’m rocking in my school shoes”. Nikhil claps his hands in delight as he listens to her.
What is there not to like about “Pete’s Big Lunch”? For one, the story starts with a refrigerator. In Nikhil’s pantheon of appliance gods, the refrigerator occupies a hallowed spot, probably only superseded by the microwave. Pete gathers the ingredients and fixes himself a big sandwich. Too big in fact that he has all his friends over for lunch. Friends, food, and refrigerator, Nikhil is in heaven!
“Pete the Cat and the Surprise Teacher” comes lower down the totem pole but is still an exciting read. We initially wondered if it was about the school and the fact that Pete’s mom makes a surprise visit as a substitute teacher that attracted him. But my wife zeroed in on the fact that a piano figures prominently in the music class and Nikhil’s excitement mounts as the story wends its way past the gym to the music room. Ah yes, it reminds Nikhil of his sister playing piano for him at night.
My wife is married to an average Joe but there is nothing average about her! Taking a cue from his teachers, she involves Nikhil in the story by having him sit with his iPad. As she reads the story out to him, she asks him questions that Nikhil answers using his iPad. So a typical story session proceeds with her narrating the story and pausing to ask Nikhil questions that he answers promptly. Nikhil’s anticipation mounts when he comes to a favorite part, perhaps the school bus or the piano in the music room. He jabs excitedly at the page and then his iPad to voice “school bus” or “Piano”.
So there it is. Nikhil loves stories that he can relate to. You and I seek to escape our lives by reading fantasy and fiction. We take our humdrum lives for granted and complain about it frequently. Nikhil values his daily routine and finds contentment in what others disdain.
A man-cub in the jungle who can converse with wild animals is cool but not something Nikhil is interested in. He harbors no flights of fancy when it comes to a prince and a princess flying off into the sunset on a magic carpet, a van is far more interesting. Little glass slippers are dainty but shoes that can be worn to school or for a walk in the backyard are practical. Stories of evil stepmothers may scare many a child, but they hold no terror for a boy with no malice in his heart and who is blessed with a loving mother.
Now a cat that loves going to school and interacting with teachers and friends is cool. A cat who enjoys trips to the supermarket is right up his alley. A cat who has a well stocked refrigerator at home is someone worth hanging out with. And to top it all, a cat that enjoys music played on a piano is a keeper! This cat is no ordinary cat, he is “Pete the Super Cat!” and he dwells in the nine tales that Nikhil loves!