My mother was a saver. Among other things, she harbored piles of dress patterns from the 1920’s and stacks of washed yogurt cups “because you never know when you might need a little container like that.”
We teased her about her saving, but I also adored it that she held onto the books that enriched my childhood and passed them onto me as an adult. There were Golden Books, such as a story about a pig overcoming fear of flying and The Little Trapper, about a boy who wants to bag a rabbit but, instead, ends up taking him home for a pet. The scribbles in the margin demonstrate that I was in to marginalia even at the age of three.
It hasn’t been lost on me how those small stories influenced my life. I once gave a dog the name “Mr. Pig” in a novel because we had a black lab who was a slobbery eater and we called him Mr. Pig. Turns out (and I did not plan this) that the character of Mr. Pig belonged to a character named Mazy Bacon. This was pointed out to me at a signing by a reader, troubling my subconscious no end.
In that early children’s story, the pig learned to fly an airplane and, voila, in 1982 I got my private pilot’s license overcoming a fear of flying. Coincidence?
The Little Trapper perhaps inspired three novels I wrote about the fur trapping period in the Northwest. I know that the only two biographies of women I read as a child were of Jane Adams at Hull House and the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories. Is it coincidence or, perhaps, influence that my professional training is as a social worker or that I spent 26 years living on a remote ranch, homesteading eleven miles from a paved road?
As a writer I ask myself what children’s stories a character reads. Many of my novels are based on the lives of actual historical people and sometimes descendants actually have those books. For The Daughter’s Walk that was so. Helga Estby loved The Lamplighter (published anonymously), a book about endurance, self-discipline and even suffering as a part of life that can be mitigated through family, love and faith. Likely her daughter, Clara, read that story, too.
I look for children’s’ titles for historical background because the authors have synthesized eras that help direct me to more in-depth research.
When I speak to book or writing groups, I often comment that some of the best writing being done today is for children and young adults. Children are a tough audience. They won’t give an author 300 pages to tell the story. A child wants the essence, and what is more difficult than writing something meaningful with only a few words? Pascal apologized to a friend for writing a long letter saying, “I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
Willa Cather noted that most of the stories that engage us as adults are based on experiences we had before we turned fifteen. Ms. Cather said the driving emotions are passion and betrayal, but I’d add two more: I think young adults seek acceptance and forgiveness. Hellie Jondoe by Randi Platt comes to mind.
Even science has discovered the power of story in healing children. Brain work at Baylor University suggests that when children must deal with powerful stressors they shut down. Traditional counseling such as I’ve been trained to do is not nearly as effective as music, dance and movement, art and story. Maya Angelou wrote that “music was my refuge. I climbed inside the space between the notes and curled my back to loneliness.” Many a writer as a child climbed inside the space between the words to find reprieve. I did.
Adults go on survival mode too. Whenever I’m asked at readings about how someone who used to love to read as a child could return to books, I send them to their local bookstore or library looking for Caldecott and Newberry winners, or honor books—- because once they enter a well-composed story for children they’ll be swept away by vivid imagery, refreshment of language, and the essence of meaning. It’s enough to take them home.
I have a collection of childrens’ books purchased as an adult. A current favorite is What you Know First by Patricia MacLaughlin. And yes, I’ll save them, maybe take them to an assisted living when that time comes. Or give those powerful stories to a ready-reader program so they’ll keep changing lives.