"But there aren't any pictures inside. Just the one on the cover."
"Tell me about the knight!"
Which I did. There are spoilers below, sort of, in the sense that it would be a spoiler to say that Hamlet ends when the prince does too much roughhousing and then everybody is sad. But what could I do? C.L. Moore's classic story "Black God's Kiss" is moody, creepy, violent, disturbing--all things that Gareth will love when he's twelve, but things that would not go down well with him now.
So I said, "Once upon a time, there was a brave knight named Jirel of Joiry, and she roughhoused with a meanie named Guillaume, who took away her castle. So Jirel climbed down into a secret forest under her castle to get something to help her get her castle back."
Gareth puzzled over this beginning. He rarely gets to hear stories about meanies and roughhousing. Since the story only had one picture, he looked to it for sense. "She could eat this mushroom and it would make her strong."
"No! We do not eat outside mushrooms. Jirel was very smart, and she would know much better than to eat an outside mushroom." Never mind that Jirel was crazy enough to risk her soul by venturing into a place so demonic she literally could not see it until she took off her crucifix, but I didn't really feel like explaining crucifixes to my three-year-old. "Let's put on our coats and play in the snow."
"This book, Mommy!"
"Oh, all right. So she found a monster statue in the secret forest and asked it how to get her castle back. It told her if she kissed it and then kissed Guillaume, she would win. This was confusing to Jirel, because kissing is usually something you do with people you like, and Guillaume was a meanie."
He creased his little eyebrows over the picture. "Where is the monster?"
"It's not in the picture."
"Where is Guillaume?"
"Also not in the picture. We have to imagine them. What do they look like in your mind?"
"I think the monster is in that cave under the tree."
"Very good. Let's go play in the snow. No? Okay. Jirel climbed back up from the secret forest into her castle, and she kissed Guillaume, and he...ah...left the building, so she got her castle back. And then she realized that, if only he hadn't been so mean, they might have been friends, so she was very sad. The end."
"She could have given him this mushroom."
"We never touch outside mushrooms, not even when we're mad at other people."
Now the creepiest thing in my head is not Jirel's sojourn through a hell-dimension where spectral horses wail in human voices, but the fact that my sweet three-year-old came up with poison as his solution to the problem of roughhousing meanies. Apparently my kid is secretly a character from a George R. R. Martin novel.