Keeping a teenager's imagination alive

August 01, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World, by Beth Kephart. Norton. 192 pages. $23.95

When readers left young Jeremy, he was 9 years old and, with the help of his devoted mother, emerging into the world from a devastating diagnosis.

In A Slant of the Sun, nominated for the National Book Award in 1998, free-lance writer Beth Kephart tells of learning that her toddler son suffered from a pervasive developmental disorder not unlike autism, and it describes how she and her husband helped him triumph over it.

Despite the cheerful ending, the book is a haunting memoir of a mother's fear that her own failings contributed to her son's disability and of her determination to heal both him and herself.

Jeremy returns in Seeing Past Z, and we follow him through grade school and into middle school in a lyrically written diary of his mother's efforts to nurture his imagination.

There is none of the heartbreak of the first book, except for Jeremy's typically rough entry into middle school, where neatness counts and creativity does not.

Instead, Kephart brings her effortless and lovely writing to the subject of the childhood imagination.

"My job as his parent is the job of every parent -- to keep giving him more of the world. To thread it in and through, strand by annealing, instructive strand. To make room for him to marvel, shift, consider, and weigh; to enter other people's stories and begin to tell his own."

Each brief chapter in this book is a snapshot of a moment in which Kephart metaphorically puts down her dust rag to observe, to challenge, to facilitate or to tempt her son with his own inner life.

She quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on a mother's advice to her daughter on how to raise a child. Give her the gift of the imagination, the woman says.

"The child must have a secret world in which to live things that never were," the woman says, and Kephart might well have stitched this motto in a sampler and hung it over her fireplace.

There is only an echo of the Jeremy we met in A Slant of the Sun. The boy no longer screams when strangers come near him, though he clearly prefers solitude. His conversations with his mother are extraordinary. There is no more of the mindless parroting to which his speech deteriorated after his diagnosis.

But certainly Kephart has been deeply changed by the process of rescuing Jeremy from the deep cave of the mind to which he was in danger of retreating forever.

The subtitle of the book --"Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World." It sounds like a dozen simple-minded child-rearing books, all about making sure there is down time between soccer practice and homework.

This is much more than that. It is a beautiful word picture of a relationship between a mother and child who have been through a great deal together but who can still give each other the emotional space in which to stand up straight and walk around.

It is deft and graceful writing that will captivate even those without children, because there is in Kephart's approach to Jeremy lessons for any of us who are unsure how to love in this crazy world.

Susan Reimer has been the family life columnist for The Sun for more than a decade.

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