Susan here, looking at early influences in reading – what influenced us, what books and characters captured us, and how did that shape us as readers, as people, as writers, as storytellers? (Writers or not – we are all storytellers of one sort or another!) Some of the books I loved best as a little girl will be familiar: Secret Garden, Pollyanna and Little Women, Heidi, The Silver Skates, The Velveteen Rabbit, several versions of fairy tales ... the list goes on, and you would know the books on it--because chances are, these are the stories you read and loved too. (I am revising an early Wench classic post today – editing and updating, as authors are wont to do. Our early posts are handy when time is short -- and when there's a topic worth returning to for more discussion!)
I sobbed my eyes out over Heidi, Pollyanna, The Five Little Peppers, and Little Women (though, unlike Joey on "Friends," I didn’t have to hide it in the freezer because Beth was sick and it was upsetting!), and I laughed over others, like Otis Spofford and Ellen Tebbits. I was fascinated and intrigued by A Wrinkle in Time, though some books just did not appeal (Anne of Green Gables never interested me much). Many of these stories I read again and again, voraciously. It was as if I lived with them, learned from them, grew with them. I loved them like family and had to return to that comfort and that space to soak in more of it.
But of all these books, what characters appealed to me most? Who did I want to be, who helped me develop my thinking, who caught my loyalty and affection and admiration? More than one character for different reasons, of course, but -- Pippi!
Pippi Longstocking was my girl.
I read Astrid Lindgren’s books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board, Pippi in the South Seas) until they were in tatters, got new copies and tattered those. I adored Pippi. She fascinated me, and I laughed every time over her silliness and sassiness and her big, bold, goofy heart. I cheered for her. She was brave and independent, funny and unique and very, very kind. And she was more interesting to me than Pollyanna or Anne of Green Gables, and didn’t break my heart like Beth in Little Women.
Running a close second was Ellen in Beverly Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits – but I didn’t have to aspire to be Ellen. I was Ellen. Small, clumsy, shy, not exactly confident or particularly lucky. Ellen’s world was similar to mine, down to the ballet lessons and the long underwear slipping down under my clothes (I lived in Upstate New York—we all had long underwear). Things that went wrong for Ellen went wrong for me in similar ways. It could have been me pulling a beet out of someone’s garden in the rain, or wearing itchy long undies, or being teased and overlooked. I so totally identified with Ellen that she felt like my twin, and I read Cleary’s books over and over.
Ah, but Pippi. I couldn’t be her. Nobody could be her. She had spitfire down to an art. I didn’t have a lick of that, being timid and introverted. She could do whatever she wanted, living alone with no parents to complicate things (mother was an angel, father was a sea captain, of course on his way to fetch her). Pippi had a house, a horse, a monkey, resources and independence—and pirate gold too. She was strong and brassy, stood up to nosey, bossy adults, threw robbers out the door and rescued kids from fire, and didn’t have to go to school (I loved school but I appreciated the sentiment!). In many ways I identified more with Tommy and Annika, the kids who lived next door to Pippi. But, Ellen-Tebbitsian as I was, I longed for a little freedom and fire of my own.
...said the teacher, "And now I will tell you that seven and five are twelve."
“See that!" said Pippi. "You knew it yourself. Why are you asking then?"
Red-haired Pippi had the same color hair as my mother, which I loved (Mom’s red-orange hair was beautiful and bright–she was once asked if she dyed it, to which she replied, "No, but if I did, why would I choose this color!"). And I used to imagine slinging a rope from my bedroom window over to the neighbors and zipping over there, as Tommy and Annika did. Astrid Lindgren was brilliant—Pippi was a kid’s delight, all the freedom and gumption any kid could want, while Tommy and Annika were perfect placeholders for the readers.
Pippi was a fantasy, not someone who could appear in my world, but she appealed to me greatly. Even that carroty hair color bonded me to her, since my mom had it too. Pippi opened doors for me in imagination and creativity, opened those channels more in some ways than other books did for me. She taught me early that you have to let go, let it fly to get that creativity up and off the ground. I was a shy little thing, and I needed a little sass-and-wacky.
There’s a little bit of Pippi in me still, and a little in some of the feistier among the heroines I’ve written. I owe some of that to Pippi. After all, she did teach me some very useful stuff:
"Can you dance the Schottische?" asked Pippi, looking him gravely in the eye. "I can."
And of course I had to run to the library to discover what a "Schottische" was, which led me to European and then Highland dance, and that led me to a curiosity about the Scottish Highlands and Inverness, where my Fraser great-grandparents had lived. And while I can't lay my Scottish historical fiction career at Pippi's feet, she did give me an early little nudge.
What were your favorite books as a kid, the stories that affected you the most? Who was your favorite character--who did you identify with, or wish you could be, who made a difference in your life?