What children’s book altered my perception of the world, and of myself? This wasn’t an easy question to answer as a few books came to mind (and some poetry that I was in love with too…I’ve already told you about “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes) but here are my top picks:
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Sara was a girl of privilege, and as much as I loved the descriptions of her porcelain doll dressed in silk and lace and all of her lovely things, I also loved Sara’s unshakable bravery and sense of self even when all the money was suddenly gone. She remained herself throughout, regardless of her status at Miss Minchin’s school for girls (this book also made me want to learn French and work on a slate) and her imagination blossomed in the shadows of her dank new dwellings.
Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. I was completely absorbed in the old-fashioned detail of these books, and I found a kinship in Emily that I hadn’t felt with Anne Shirley (of Green Gables). Though I have since read the Anne books and now love them, Emily was more my type of girl: quiet, introspective, walking in circles and spinning stories in her head. And she would experience those beautiful flashes of inspiration that I experienced (if only briefly) as a young girl yearning to become a writer. There is a particular scene in Emily Climbs of being snowed in an old house overnight with her friends (including a certain young man whom Emily likes beyond friendship) where she finds the inspiration to write a novel. This was pure magic to me, and it spoke to something vital to me, still: the act of writing and the feeling of being inspired is a beautiful thing, and should be enjoyed for its own sake and not just for the final product. Especially as a kid, when I would get distracted from one project to the next to the next and nothing was ever finished, it was important to know this. As if that wasn’t enough, Emily had a special ESP/seeing-into-the-past type of power. She was like a quieter, darker, more mysterious version of Anne Shirley, with magical powers to boot. It’s no wonder that I was hooked.
I could blame these books for making me sort of an old-fashioned girl more interested in pretty dresses and dancing slippers than in the brand-name sweatshirts and white jeans that all my friends were getting, but looking back I don’t think this was such a bad thing. At the Children’s Literature Conference, M.T. Anderson talked about how teenagers have a tendency (a natural tendency, I think) to create themselves from the “outside, in” – their clothing is seen as evidence of their personalities, and so they wear and change their clothing to suit the personality they want to emulate. A big part of me wanted to live in the days of Emily of New Moon – I’m sure I may not have been happy there long-term, but it made a big impression on me. Those books helped create my personality, from the inside-out. And while I’m happy in modern life I often retreat back to the lush details and exciting history of the past when I write.