From the Mixed-Up Files of . . . Middle-Grade Authors.This is reprised from a post I did in April on the site
I’ve been “thinking” the past few months . . . (“A dangerous activity!”
my husband likes to tell me!) Since I’m a sloooooow learner it’s taken
me many years to realize something about myself, and I had an epiphany
of sorts after the recent launch of my newest middle-grade ghost story, Circle of Secrets (Scholastic), and the manuscript I just finished editing last week, When the Butterflies Came (April, 2013, Scholastic).
Both of these books have elements of magical realism. (Well, maybe not *that* magical because ghosts are actually real, aren’t they? I like to think so! Does anybody remember the movie, Ghost with Demi Moore and the late Patrick Swayze? Oh my! )
In these stories, I write about charm bracelets and secret notes in a
bottle tree and old porcelain dolls and keys that unlock mysterious
doors, and it suddenly occurred to me that the books of my
childhood—the books I read over and over again—have influenced me more
than I ever realized. Because as a kid I *loved* books with these kind
of magical and mysterious artifacts. OR is it that all of these elements
are things I already loved so I gravitate toward books with those
elements in my reading—and now I’m writing books with those elements? Sort of a chicken and egg phenomenon . . . but still.
How much do our favorite books as a child influence what we read as
an adult? Have your tastes changed much? I do find that I read more
widely and eclectically as an adult, and I like to try unusual books
I’ve heard good reviews about. I mean, I don’t *just* read books about
And for the writers out there, how have your childhood favorites influenced you in the topics you choose to write about now?
But here’s the thing: As I was writing Circle of Secrets and When the Butterflies Came, I never consciously
added the various elements of dolls, charm bracelets, and old-fashioned
skeleton keys to the story. After all, I haven’t actually perused my
childhood favorites in many years. (Too busy reading all the fantastic
new books in the children’s lit scene!)
No, my story ideas evolved as I was first thinking about
complicated mother/daughter relationships. Girls and their moms who were
carrying secrets and hurts and guilt that keep them apart. And I was
thinking about what it was like live in a small town on a bayou. Or an
island in the South Pacific. And I was thinking about families and
sisters and forgiveness and love and how complicated people are and our
relationships. And my brain was doing things like, “Ooh, what if this
happened? Or this! Or that!” as I furiously scribbled notes, having
small epiphanies, and getting excited as a kid when all those elements
start clicking into a real story with twists and turns.
It hasn’t been until AFTER I plotted, drafted, revised and
copy-edited that the final epiphany came—that I’m writing the kind of
books I loved to read as a child. And that’s been a really satisfying
epiphany. So now that we all feel warm and squishy, here are three
favorite books from when I was a kid (not counting Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy!):
MAGIC ELIZABETH by Norma Kassirer is about a girl
named Sally who has to stay with a cranky old aunt for a few weeks.
Feeling lonely, she finds a mirror in the attic that transports her to
the past where she sees the life of a girl unfold—a girl who lived in
this very house long ago. Sally experiences what the girl from the past,
Sarah, experiences over a period of strange, dreamlike weeks—including
the disappearance of Sarah’s beloved doll named Elizabeth. As Sally
becomes embroiled in the events of the past—she eventually figures out
the clues that will lead her to finding Elizabeth, the lost doll from
sixty years ago.
THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE by Elizabeth Goudge
Who says Moms can’t find great books for their kids to read? My
mother read a review of this book in a kid’s magazine when I was about
ten-years-old and thought I’d like it. Oh, boy, I LOVED it! Read it over
and over again. Set in what I used to call the “olden days” about an
orphan girl going to stay with her unusual Uncle at Moonacre Manor; in
parts both realistic and magical. In fact, this book has so many unusual
and wonderful characters and plot threads it’s difficult to summarize.
Imagine my surprise to read this by J. K. Rowling: “The Little White Horse was
my favorite novel as a child. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking
plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.”
TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE by Carol Ryrie Brink (Yes, the author of Caddie Woodlawn fame!)
This is the story of two best friends during the turn of the 20th
century who receive a pair of dolls for Christmas and together begin
writing a story about the dolls, letting them experience adventure and
danger and romance—as the girls grow up and deal with school and
friendship and family. The dolls show up again decades later when the
two girls are old and widowed—with a surprise for the reader.
So I’m curious about all of YOU. What were your fav books as a child?
Do you read the same kinds of books you did as a child? Have you found
that those books have informed you and your life in any particular way?
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