Thursday, July 18, 2013

Books I Read as a Child: Influence or Reflection of My Personality?

I copied this from Amazon and
I apologize for the fuzziness; it
didn't copy well.
Recently I got to thinking about the books that were my favorites when I was a child, and I began to wonder how those books might either have influenced me or might reflect the kinds of material that I'm writing in my older years.  I've turned up some interesting relationships.
       My mother read to me every day when I was a toddler and preschooler.  I would meet her at the door with a book when she would come home from teaching school, and she would immediately sit down and read for 30 minutes.  Like most children, I liked to experience the same books over and over.  Strangely enough (for a two or three year old) I adored Billy Whiskers, by Frances Trego Montgomery.  My well-worn copy of the book is sitting over here on my shelf; I found it when I cleaned out all those stored boxes after my mother died.  Apparently it was a very popular children's book for its time (early 20th century) because the cover says "One Million, One Hundred Fifty-two Thousand Copies of This Book Sold."  It sometimes has the subtitle "The Autobiography of a Goat" and it recounted the adventures of a billy goat who was trained to pull a cart and ends up in the circus.  Frankly, I don't recall the plot at all, but I do remember the line "the agonized look on the face of Billy Whiskers."  For some reason that line fascinated me.  I used to go around spouting it because it never failed to make adults laugh and praise me for being precocious.  It seems I've always loved the sound of words, even if I wasn't sure what they meant!  I really need to read that book again and see what all the fuss was about.  And something else my fascination with that book demonstrates is that I always liked non-human protagonists from early on.
       When I was in fourth or fifth grade I read at least 50 books.  Our main classroom had a table with books on it and every day I picked a different one.  We had to write little reviews.  I liked most of what I read, but much of it didn't stick in my mind.  I know I never cared much for Mary Poppins, although I couldn't tell you why.
       My first big love among books that I read to myself was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I read it when I was eight years old (I think somebody gave it to me while I was recovering from chicken pox).  I read it 14 times and had the whole first chapter memorized.  Later I also read and relished the same author's A Little Princess.  Two things about these books strike me now:  They both have ailing male characters who are helped by strong female characters.  In my book The Termite Queen, the characters are not children, of course, but the male lead is a conflicted introvert who is struggling to cope with his past, something like Colin's father in The Secret Garden or Sara Crewe's father in A Little Princess; and Kaitrin Oliva is equivalent to Mary Lennox or Sara Crewe.  I have always thought of Rochester in Jane Eyre as more the inspiration for Griffen in The Termite Queen, but it seems the inclination to be fascinated with the vulnerable male character has been with me from the beginning.
       Then I discovered historical fiction.  Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray was my first venture into that area on the level I was supposed to be reading (about 10 years old).  I was fascinated by the depiction of medieval life.  However, even before that, I had discovered The Three Musketeers.  I know I met it when I was eight years old, the same year I read The Secret Garden, but I think it was in a version abridged for children.  I fell in love with swashbuckling adventure, and in the year I was twelve I read every one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers.  I also read The Count of Monte Cristo in its original form when I was ten and was completely mesmerized.  Unfortunately, I learned the word "infanticide" from that book and was pretty shocked by the episode where the villain buries the baby.  I also learned the word "hashish," which I understood vaguely only as something bad that shouldn't be messed with.  I was fascinated by the paralyzed man who could only communicate by blinking his eyes, and by the drug that simulated death, allowing the heroine to escape.  And the whole revenge motif, which proved in the end not to be the right answer ... I'm sure that had an influence on my thinking.  But certainly none of that damaged my psyche -- it just opened up the possibilities of wonderful, exotic adventures, both physical and psychological, and it fed a long-standing interest in French history and the French language.  And while I always loved the rascal D'Artagnan (a trickster character for sure), my favorite musketeer was Athos, the sober intellectual.
       Another influence where I see a connection to what I write today came from the Doctor Doolittle books.  I know today they are castigated as racist, but actually only the original volume contains much of that nature and it's one I never read!  I don't own any of those books; I read them all from the library and so I just plucked one off the shelf one day and then another and another and paid no attention to reading them in order.  My favorites and the only ones I really remember were Mudface the Turtle and the Canary Opera (I don't remember the exact titles).  Do you see a thread here?  Both are about animals (comparable to aliens) who are intelligent and can talk.  Mudface also introduced me to the ideas of archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology -- how did humans really get to the New World?  Well, how else but by having a male and female pair get rescued during Noah's flood by a giant sea turtle who deposited them in the Western Hemisphere?  I thought that was the neatest idea!  I also loved Dr. Doolittle's parrot and the canary in the Canary Opera.  Talking, intelligent birds -- hmm. 
       These are not the only books I read as a child and teenager, of course.  Quo Vadis was another of my historical finds (stimulated by seeing the movie at the age of 10) -- it got me interested in Roman and classical history.  I loved Little Women and proceeded to read all its sequels, also.   I paid my dues reading nursing stories (Cherry Ames and Sue Barton), and I got into mysteries about the age of twelve.  I inhaled the entire collected Sherlock Holmes canon that year, and in high school I read a lot of Ellery Queen.  Later in my life I particularly liked Dorothy Sayers and a few other authors.  But I never found the mystery genre as a whole compelling.  It was always realistic books with a psychological twist that captivated me, or else a lot of fast-paced, swashbuckling adventure with trickster characters.  And this summary wouldn't be complete without a mention of Shakespeare, who falls in both of the above categories.  When I was fourteen, my mother bought me a complete Shakespeare.  We read Julius Caesar in school that year (feeding my interest in ancient Rome) and of course my mother taught English literature, so I started reading the plays and actually memorizing passages.  That can't have hurt my literary development.
       One more little anecdote involving historical fiction:  I had seen a movie at some early stage of my life where I was appalled and horrified when a character's eyes were gouged out.  I practically had nightmares about that scene, but after a few years I couldn't recall what movie it was from.  And then in high school I read The Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellenbarger, and lo and behold!  There was the same scene!  Actually, it's a trick; the character only pretends to gouge out the eyes and substitutes grapes for the eyeballs.  But I don't think I understood that when I saw the movie at the age of seven or eight; I thought that was really somebody's eyeballs!
       You may note that I never read any science fiction as a child, and the only fantasy I can recall were the Oz books.  We had a friend who had adored the Oz books when she was a child and she bought me a whole bunch of them.  I have eight of them over here on the shelf.  My favorites characters were the Patchwork Girl (another intelligent non-human) and the Glass Cat ("I have pink brains - you can see 'em work!"). I also liked one tale where dinosaur bones come to life.  There you see my fascination with paleontology and it presents again the strange alien lifeform that exhibits intelligence.  I really didn't get into epic fantasy at all until I read Tolkien at the age of 29.  After that, the ball started rolling.  But after my writing hiatus from 1983 to 2000, it seems I turned back to my roots.


  1. Quite the reader! I know I read a lot, but specifics are sparse except for all the Walter Farley books (Black Stallion) and Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague). Did I mention I loved horses?

  2. Actually, I loved the Marguerite Henry books, too. I especially liked King of the Wind, about the Godolphin Arabian. I wasn't particularly taken with Misty. Again, it seems to be the exotic setting that attracted me, and I was also much taken by the beautiful illustrations. I think I read The Black Stallion, but I have no memory of it. I did read Black Beauty and hated it, I think because the horse's suffering is quite graphic and it dies at the end (isn't that true?) Sham in King of the Wind is also forced to be a cart horse, but that one has a happy ending.

  3. Very much along the lines of the nature vs nurture debate! I should imagine both come into play in terms of your eventual choices on what to write about.

    My reading was far less sophisticated than yours. The earliest book that I remember loving as a young child was called 'Dilly the Duck', I've tried to find it again, but my searches bring up another book with the same name which isn't the same one. It was about a very kind duck who had everything she wanted, but she was so kind, she kept giving everything away to others who didn't have things, she even gave away her children to other childless ducks! And she ended up with nothing. But as I remember, her children came back in the end because they missed her. I guess it has a similar message to The Giving Tree.

    As I got older I liked quite mainstream books about kids that I could relate to. The school-based ones, and I read a lot of books of stories about dancing, because I loved dancing; there was a set of books about a girl called Gemma that I probably read more than any other. I also liked quite silly/funny books, some of the titles I remember are 'The Fattypuffs and the Thinifers', 'How to Eat Fried Worms' and 'McBroom's Wonderful One Acre Farm'. When I was about 11, I discovered Judy Blume and that was my main reading fodder for quite a while!

    My first appreciation of anything I would class as good literature wasn't until I was 15 when we read Silas Marner at school, and I really liked that, and have read it two or three times since. We also did Julius Caesar, but I didn't like that at all.

    Now that you've written this post, I'm going to ponder on how much I think my early reading choices influenced what I like to write about.

    I've practically written a whole blog post in the comment box here, ha!

  4. Hi,Vanessa! You're welcome to write a blog post in my comments anytime! LOL This does make an interesting topic, doesn't it?
    I can't help you with Dilly the Duck, I'm afraid - I don't think I ever read it. There was one book I read from the library and I loved it, but I remember very little about it. I don't even know the title, but it was about the adventures of a lost gray cat with a black tip on its tail. I've never been able to find it again - too little information. At the age of nine I wasn't keeping notes on the library books I checked out! But that's another instance of a story told realistically from the viewpoint of an animal.
    I never liked overtly moralistic books. There's a series I can't remember the name of - it was one of those on the table the years I read fifty books in school. It featured a woman who instructed children in how to behave. For example, a child who won't wash grows vegetables all over his body. Ugh!
    Oh, Silas Marner! I liked that, too! Of course, my mother taught it. And I guess I liked Shakespeare for the same readon - my mother funished me with such a positive view of the Bard!

    1. Sorry - posted too quick! That last sentence should read: ... for the same reason - my mother furnished me with such a positive view of the Bard.

  5. I always loved the Oz books and am now in the process of reading them aloud to my youngest child (though he could read them on his own - it's more fun this way :-) I used to save my money to purchase them, and have several left from my childhood. Though when my older kids were little I bought the entire set one Christmas - I'm so glad I did.
    Lovely post.

    1. Hi, Lisa! I agree - it's great fun to read out loud to somebody. When my neighbor's girls were little, I used to buy them books at Christmas and birthdays, and sometimes I would get to read them to them. I enjoyed it a lot! There are slews of Oz books; after L. Frank Baum died, other people continued to write them. I have the basic Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz and I have the Patchwork Girl, but I think my others are mostly later authors.