A question authors often are asked is, “What books or authors influenced you?” I believe that the question is an attempt to figure out how the author got from point A (reader) to point B (writer), as well as an effort to try to discern what shaped the writer’s style, genre, and outlook.
My childhood reading was, I believe, typical for children of the 1950s-1960s. My personal favorites were fantasy stories to animal stories, and some stories about children in different times and places. However, I did not go in for stories aimed specifically at girls, such as the Nancy Drew series or even Alcott’s Little Women, which came into play later in my life when I studied nineteenth-century American culture.
I received my books from three places: my parents (as gifts), the school library, and the Scholastic Book Club. I used to experience a great sense of pleasure when I ordered and bought a book from Scholastic at school and a few weeks later actually had the book in my hand. Now that I think about it, when I order a book on line today, I get that same sense of satisfaction and anticipation of a new adventure. Certain things don’t change!
So, allow me to search my memory as we go back through the mists of time (cue the nostalgic music) to come up with a few favorites books. I choose photos of the covers that I might have encountered as a child. Some, however, I do remember clearly, like the cover for Bambi.
Note: All the descriptions of the book come from the Amazon website.
Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse by Ann Sewell
“Is it possible that a horse can think, analyse the situation and come to conclusions like a human? It is possible! Anna Sewell states that in her famous novel “Black Beauty” where the story is told on behalf of an English noble blood stallion. This touching and rather sentimental story teaches us to understand horses better, to treat nature and animals more carefully and to think about simple but very important values of life. That’s what Anna Sewell wrote briefly about her novel “Black Beauty” loved by millions of readers: “I made up a small story to wake in people up love and sympathy for animals”.
Sewell’s ambition to awaken love and sympathy for animals worked in my case. Like many you girls, I loved horses. This early animal-rights story took me to another time and place (England of the 1870s) and on the journey of one horse’s life, which ranged from happy to heart-breaking. Interestingly, this was Sewell’s first and last novel. She died some months after its publication and its becoming a best-seller. The story gave me a vivid impression of a horse’s life in the late 1800s and I desperately wanted the Beauty to be happy, especially after reading the chapters about the horse’s mistreatment and brutality.
The theme of Sewell’s story parallels that of the next of my favorite childhood books.
Bambi: A Life in the Woods, Felix Salten
“Bambi’s life in the woods begins happily. There are forest animals to play with and Bambi’s twin cousins, Gobo and beautiful Faline
But winter comes, and Bambi learns that the woods hold danger—and things he doesn't understand. The first snowfall makes food hard to find. Bambi’s father, a handsome stag, roams the forest, but leaves Bambi and his mother alone.
Then there is Man. He comes to the forest with weapons that can wound an animal. Bambi is scared that Man will hurt him and the ones he loves. But Man can’t keep Bambi from growing into a great stag himself, and becoming the Prince of the Forest.”
I remember reading this one over and over, and I don’t know why. I had seen the Disney classic film, but the book engaged me deeply. I think it may be because it was sort of a metaphor for growing up, for the dangers and difficulties we face, and for triumph over those things. Like Black Beauty, it was a story that awakened my awareness that we share the planet with other beings whose lives deserve respect, too.
That same belief – respect for all – turns up in my novels today.
The Black Stallion (and series), Walter Farley
“First published in 1941, Walter Farley's best-selling novel for young readers is the triumphant tale of a boy and a wild horse. From Alec Ramsay and the Black's first meeting on an ill-fated ship to their adventures on a desert island and their eventual rescue…”
Yet another story about a horse. This could also be up in the “animal rights” section. But this one also is an out-and-out adventure story, as well as a story about a bond between young Alec and a black Arabian stallion called the Black and/or Shetan (Arabic for “Satan”). The horse’s name ought to tell you that he was considered uncontrollable and unbreakable.
Alec and the Black become companions throughout the series -and that companionship became an important idea for me, so much so that it still shows up in my stories today. Most of my characters do not wander solo throughout life. They always seem to have either platonic friends or life partners of some sort. You can’t go it alone.
Also, I loved the adventure aspect of this story and the series that followed. One of the reasons I stayed away from “girl’s fiction” is that it simply did not have enough adventure for me. Material written specifically for girls often seemed to be rather claustrophobic to me. As a result, I chose to read stories like this first.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and series), L. Frank Baum
“…follow the adventures of young Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, as their Kansas house is swept away by a cyclone and they find themselves in a strange land called Oz.
Here she meets the Munchkins and joins the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion on an unforgettable journey to the Emerald City, where lives the all-powerful Wizard of Oz.”
I saw the 1939 movie on television long before I ever picked up the book. Sad to say, the film scared the dickens out of me. I couldn’t sit through the appearance of the Tinman. (A man of tin? Yikes!) And let’s not even talk about that Big Giant Head sitting on the throne in the Emerald City castle. That was totally freaky. But, oddly enough, the Wicked Witch of the West did not frighten me.
When I finally did read the book, I noticed how its ending differed from the film. On screen, it was made clear that Dorothy’s adventure in Oz was only a dream. In the book, after clicking her heels together, she returns home to Kansas, flying down and setting her feet on the dirt road. The book affirmed Dorothy’s outrageous adventure as genuine. As a kid, I felt that MGM was copping out and trying to “explain away” what had happened to Dorothy, perhaps even domesticating the adventure. As if you could explain away and tame something that weird. I believed that weird stuff could and did happen then and I still do.
I loved the details of the different lands in Oz and the challenges presented to Dorothy and companions. I loved Dorothy’s courage. I loved her camaraderie with misfits Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. We need friends to get through life. We can help each other solve problems, be brave, and share sorrow.
Oh, wait… I think I’m seeing Maggie’s boarding house’s roots in Dorothy and her friends.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
My description: Twain’s stories about two boys growing up along the Mississippi River in the early 1800s. I got a dose of American culture of the time, told in an engaging, humorous style with plenty of adventure.
Classics – and I didn’t read them as a school assignment. I read them on my own. I think I remember enjoying Tom Sawyer the most. It is possible – perhaps probably – that these two books fed into my interest in “what was it like to live back then.”
These books are partly responsible for my interest in the nineteenth century. Some of Saint Maggie’s roots are found here.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
“When John Cameron Butler was a child, he was captured in a raid on the Pennsylvania frontier and adopted by the great warrrior Cuyloga. Renamed True Son, he came to think of himself as fully Indian. But eleven years later his tribe, the Lenni Lenape, has signed a treaty with the white men and agreed to return their captives, including fifteen-year-old True Son. Now he must go back to the family he has forgotten, whose language is no longer his, and whose ways of dress and behavior are as strange to him as the ways of the forest are to them.”
This is another historical fiction tale that intrigued me as a child. I grew up in New Jersey (and still live there). Part of our lessons in school included state history, and we learned about the Lenni Lenape, the people who had lived there before the Europeans arrived. The difference between the two cultures interested me, as well as True Son’s struggle to figure out where he belonged.
When I think about it, I can see that this book introduced me to thinking about cultural differences, and to wondering why we can’t get along, and other concerns that feed into my work today.
The Little Witch, Anna Elizabeth Bennett:
“In print for the first time in thirty years is Anna Elizabeth’s Bennett classic tale of a little witch who dreams of becoming normal girl.
I have a clear memory of reading this book on the eve of turning ten and realizing that I n would not be the same age as young Minikin Snickasee in the story. I identified with her, not only because we had been the same age, but also because I probably was struggling with questions about where I fit in the world.
This story, like The Light in the Forest, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have identity as a central issue. Who am I? Where do I fit in the scheme of things? What is my purpose in life? It also struggles with what it is like to be different from everyone else.
So, there you have it. My childhood fave-rave books. This has been a fun exercise for me, and an enlightening one. I didn’t realize how much the themes of those early books have stayed with me throughout my life. And that, friends, is one reason why reading is so important. It shapes us, even stretches us. It can even make us better, if we let it.