The Reading Reptile

by  Morgan Biles

I drive down 63rd Street as the quiet murmur of NPR fights against my car’s noisy, blasting AC. With summer just around the corner, the shops in the Brookside neighborhood are finally coming out of hibernation. People sit outside sipping their cold brews at The Roasterie, and kids walk out of Brookside Toy and Science clutching the latest addition to their stuffed animal collection. Next door to the toy store sits a dark and empty shop with a large sign taped to the window reading “available.” The space has been vacant for months, but not long ago, the dark and empty store was once bright and packed with overflowing shelves of books and art displays. It was the setting of a 5th birthday party, a book signing with the author of The Mysterious Benedict Society, summer afternoons spent with my grandma, and winter days spent picking out Christmas presents. It was the starting point for all my great literary adventures.

*        *        *

I walk into the mouth of a green, scaly lizard and into a world of possibilities. This world smells like paint supplies and cupcakes. This world sounds like babbling children and turning pages. This world feels like magic. The lizard’s mouth that arches over the doorway is my wardrobe and The Reading Reptile bookstore is my Narnia.

Paper mache and murals fill the store with life and vivid colors representing every shade of the Pantone spectrum. Literary characters have seemingly crawled out of their pages and onto the walls, floorboards, ceiling tiles and tops of shelves. Olivia the pig performs a pirouette on top of a bookcase. The Hungry Caterpillar crawls across the ceiling chasing a chocolate cake. Lily dances in her red boots and clutches her purple plastic purse.

In each nook and cranny, there is something new for me to discover. A typewriter with real ink is nestled between two bookshelves. I sit down and send my fingers flying, furiously typing out gibberish, imitating the way adults type. The machine makes a “clickety-clack” sound just like in the book I picked out last time: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. In the southwest corner, light from the street-facing window pours onto a toy-covered, raised platform. Red polka dots sprinkle the yellow wall, and worn, oversized chairs—the perfect reading thrones—look out across the store. On the yellow chair, a cat sits and watches over his kingdom. In the opposite corner, a pop-up bakery beckons patrons to pair their picture book with a side of cupcakes. My favorite is the “Big Bad Wolf”a chocolate “wolf” cupcake with a vanilla “grandma” cupcake hidden inside. The dessert fills me with the sugar rush that all successful imaginary adventures require.

I have to crane my neck to see the tops of the shelves which are crammed with creativity and wonder. Each copy glows with all the possibilities that a new book can bring. My finger lightly glides over each spine, feeling shiny dusted covers or embossed titles as I peruse each row. I rebel against the age-old adage, judging each book by their brightly colored covers. I pull a few down to investigate if we are compatible and leave the rest for the next curious child. Each book presents the possibility of a new adventure and a new stamp on my ever-expanding literary passport.

Before I could read, when the letters on pages were hieroglyphics to me, I couldn’t wait to bring my books home and spend the hour before bedtime listening to my mom read them aloud to me over and over again. Now that I’m able to read on my own, I stop waiting until I get home. The backseat of my family’s minivan or the floor of the Reading Reptile both makes excellent reading nooks when you’re as impatient to “travel” as I am.

In the Reading Reptile, curiosity is my ticket to go anywhere or anytime. Like in the Magic Tree House, time in the real world freezes whenever I leave on a new adventure. One afternoon I might choose Egyptology and uncover an ancient pharaoh’s tomb. Another day, I could visit Panem to compete in the Hunger Games. Perhaps I would choose to color the world purple with Harold and his crayon or cause a ruckus in the Plaza with Eloise. With the assistance of my mom’s long, book-fetching arms, any world is within reach. Any adventure is possible. Anything is possible.

Anything was possible.

I sit at the stop light, staring at what used to be The Reading Reptile. The sunlight that pours in through the window only serves to highlight the ghosts of my childhood. There is no longer a cat sitting in the window. The cupcakes have been thrown away. The paper mache characters have crawled back into their books. All that remains are the faded letters on the blue and red awning. The doors to the Reading Reptile are closed for good, and my wardrobe to Narnia is seemingly locked.   

My world is constantly flooded with words, and somewhere along the way, as more and more words pushed their way into my orbit, the ones from my childhood faded. The magic that once glowed as bright as the moon I said goodnight to slowly became eclipsed by the shadows of the real world. The stories I currently read no longer come from cartoonish picture books or thick hardbacks. Instead, most of my reading time is spent on textbooks, news apps, and social media posts. These new stories I read are rarely fun and fictional. They are often serious and sometimes scary. Scary used to take up only a small space in my bookshelf, and they were stories of wicked witches or wild things—evils that would be overcome by the end of the story. Now, scary takes up multiple shelves in my digital bookshelf, and they are stories about climate change or Charlottesville—evils that do not get resolved on the pages.

I am brought back to reality by a honking car and the green glow of the stoplight. I look away from the Reading Reptile, turn my head forward, and press down on the gas pedal.

That night, while babysitting, I found myself surrounded by children’s books again. Of all of the colorful titles on their disorganized bookshelf, the boys choose Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as their bedtime story. It wasn’t like the worn and faded paperback copy that sits on my bookshelf at home. This one was a brand new, illustrated hardback; it would have a been a top seller at the Reading Reptile. The pages were still crisp and stiff. I opened where the bookmark had been left, right in the middle of Harry’s first year at Hogwarts. As I read aloud, the three boys crowded around me, we all became instantly immersed in the wizarding world. At that moment, I realized that I had been wrong about The Reading Reptile. The physical building it occupied might be empty now, but the magic of the books it held on its shelves is still very much alive. The fictional worlds of my childhood were still open, waiting for me to go back to them again.

We, myself included, have become understandably cynical about the real world and the lessons from our children’s books. With all the negativity, tragedy and disappointment surrounding us, who could blame us for thinking that happily ever after only happen in the fictional worlds of our childhood? But to dismiss children’s books as trivial, as just for children, is to dismiss all of the universal messages they convey. In the mess of the real world, perhaps we need to go back to the basics and rediscover the lessons we learned from our first bookshelves.

The Giving Tree taught us the joy of selflessness. Charlotte’s Web taught us how friendship can be found in unexpected sources. The Phantom Tollbooth taught us the wonder of knowledge. The Lorax taught us to value nature. Chrysanthemum taught us to celebrate what makes us unique. Harry Potter taught us that the greatest magic is not wizarding spells, but love.

These stories showed us how to be brave, how to stand up to bullies, and how to have strength amid adversity. These stories showed us how to value individuality, rebel against conformity and not take ourselves too seriously. These stories showed us that love ultimately wins over hate and hope is stronger than fear.

Hope. They all taught us hope.

We learn hope from the children’s books that taught us anything is possible. Hope is the nightlight that scares away the monsters under the bed and calms us after a bad nightmare. It is hope that brings light to the dark corners of the real world, keeping us from falling into the black hole of cynicism. The qualities at the foundation of our favorite children’s books—hope, imagination, and curiosity—are the very the same qualities at the foundation of progress and innovation. If we lose hope and let cynicism take over, we will be left stagnated, bored and uninspired. Every once in a while, it’s important to lay aside the newspapers and textbooks and crack open one of the dusty picture books sitting in our attics. Children’s books are not just for children. They are for the hopeful spirit that lives inside all of us.