Reading with kids: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

For bedtime reading, Moomin and I are reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favorite kids’ books. It has a lot of great scope for imagination as its hero David climbs the stairs in a creepy ruined mansion in a thunderstorm, deals with his miserly uncle, is shanghaied, shipwrecked and marooned, and then is implicated in an assassination and has to go into on the run as an outlaw.

Kidnapped illustration of fight

We skipped a little bit of the first chapter, as it’s ponderous and its humor doesn’t come through very well to a kid, at least to my kid. I’ve also skipped some of the more detailed bits of Scottish clan politics. We talked about the Scotland rebellion against England, and Moomin grasped that the peasants were being forced to dress differently and pay two rents and were also being forced out of their homes — and why they might ally themselves with England’s enemy, France.

Another hurdle for this book is the Scottish dialect but once Moomin kenned that “ken” means know, he got into it. The best bits for him so far have been the bravado of Alan Breck, David’s friend from an epic fight on a ship and companion in their flight from the British soldiers.

The dialect can be daunting but once you get into the swing of it, really fun, and great practice for figuring out words from context:

“I’ll chance it, Alan,” said I. “I’ll go with you.”

“But mind you,” said Alan, “it’s no small thing. Ye maun lie bare and hard, and brook many an empty belly. Your bed shall be the moorcock’s, and your life shall be like the hunted deer’s, and ye shall sleep with your hand upon your weapons. Ay, man, ye shall taigle many a weary foot, or we get clear! I tell ye this at the start, for it’s a life that I ken well. But if ye ask what other chance ye have, I answer: Nane. Either take to the heather with me, or else hang.”

“And that’s a choice very easily made,” said I; and we shook hands upon it.

“And now let’s take another keek at the red-coats,” says Alan, and he led me to the north-eastern fringe of the wood.

We talked about what the hell this meant for quite a while. “What does he mean, that’s a choice very easiliy made?” Moomin analyzed what David meant by that, and has stopped the story in other situations to understand what the characters mean in their conversations. That is actually one of the huge strengths of Kidnapped – dialogue that establishes characters’ relationships and what they’re thinking. From David’s terse “that’s a choice very easily made” we see his position as a citizen undermined. He had trusted in the English and in the criminal justice system and his own innocence, but in this situation, he sees that there could be no justice for him. Aside from that moral analysis, we both cracked up when we hit the word “taigle”. It was over the top.

I recommend reading short pieces from books that are over your kid’s head. With a younger kid you might just start in the middle of the book in an action scene, after summarizing the story’s setup and listing some characters. But rather than going for a condensed or heavily edited dumbed-down book, read bits of the original text. I try to get a narrative flow going with exciting action scenes that I know Moomin will be imagining as a comic book or a movie. Once the flow is going a bit, you can interrupt it with explanations briefly – and then keep moving! After your boring lecturey explanations, remind your kid what just happened, maybe read the last sentence before you stopped. If your child asks questions you could try to remember them and look up further information when it isn’t bedtime but don’t get on the Internet to look stuff up at 9:30pm on a school night (I speak from experience.)

Here’s another technique for reading a book that’s slightly over your child’s head: Stop after a paragraph and gloss it with a brief summary of what just happened. “So, he’s going back and forth between Scotland and France, smuggling money to keep the English King from getting the taxes.” Like that!

As we raced through the book I told Moomin that my favorite chapter was the one where David is marooned on an island. He can’t swim, the pole from the ship that helped him get ashore floated off, there’s no shelter and it’s cold and raining; the raw shellfish and filthy puddles he eats and drinks to survive make him throw up. He gets pneumonia and a hole in his pocket loses him all his gold coins. Then he despairs that a passing boat doesn’t rescue him. Finally he realizes the channel between his island and the mainland becomes a mudflat at low tide and he could have walked off the island all along. I love this chapter! He’s so miserable. Then feels so silly when he figures out how to escape. I always thought, “Well, that’lll never happen to ME… because I know to look for the tidal causeway!” But to Moomin’s mind, I’m very weird for liking something that’s about a character’s misery. He explained that the chapter was just sad and depressing and that we were just different in what we enjoy.

This happened again for the chapter where David and Alan are on the run from the redcoat soldiers & have to spend a day cowering on top of a tall rock, broiling in the sun with nothing to drink while soldiers roam around looking for them. “Why would you think this is good, Mom?” “Well… because I might be kind of miserable for some reason but at least I’m not hiding on top of a rock in the hot sun? And because whenever I do climb up a rock, I imagine that I’m in this exciting scene, being really heroic and enduring it and escaping.” He is probably still thinking that over.

David Balfour is privileged, though he’s an orphan and penniless and kidnapped. He comes from the Low Countries rather than the Highlands and speaks good English. It becomes clear over the story that David identifies with his oppressors at first. He starts out shocked at Alan and the other Highlanders’ actions and attitude, but ends up realizing that in the eyes of the English he’s fair game. So while he also starts out very uptight about the Scotland Rebellion, he ends up in some sympathy with it (as he runs away from soldiers and meets the people in the Highlands.) I thought Moomin might find this interesting too; why might a “good citizen” have sympathy or give support to a political rebellion? He will likely need to think about that during his lifetime as he already appears to struggle with ethical questions between law, rules, and “what is right”.

After that we read some chapters of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. He likes to think about what would actually make a person wise, so this seems like a good start along with Kalila and Dimna (The Mirror For Princes). Most of it made him roll his eyes, but he liked the verse about emptiness and the inside of a pot and the inside of a house being the important parts because they’re what you can fill up with stuff and they’re what you actually use. I enjoyed his outrage at some of the verses about denial of the senses. Next up, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which he will surely enjoy more than the Tao.

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