Three childhood books that changed my life

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I’ve always been a voracious reader (I started reading when I was 3), and what I read helped to shape my world. While I was in library school I took several courses dealing with children’s literature, and that spurred me to think about some of the books that most influenced me in my formative years. I’m sure the list is different for everyone, and it was difficult to narrow it down, but here is my top-three list: The Enchanted Castle (1907) by E. Nesbit, Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter, and Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster. I realize, writing this, that although I grew up in the 1960’s, my formative literature was definitely from an earlier era! That says more about my parents’ influence than anything else.

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I first read The Enchanted Castle when I was about seven years old. I had read lots of fairy tales, animal stories (especially Thornton Burgess’s books), Halloween stories about witches and such, as well as realistic fiction, but The Enchanted Castle was the first book I read that really blurred the lines between fantasy and reality to the point that I couldn’t tell where the lines were. I was fascinated by this, by the notion of alternate realities, the possibility that a fantasy could perhaps be real. To this day I can’t think of another book that, at least for me, did such an artful job of riding that edge.  E. Nesbit wrote many wonderful books, and I have enjoyed them all, but The Enchanted Castle still holds special magic for me.  Of course it made me want to read more fantasy, so I read other Nesbit books, Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Knight’s Castle , C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Narnia chronicles, later Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (still one of my all-time favorites, though those weren’t published until I was a teenager), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and lots more. Hmm, all but Eager are British authors — they seem to have a special gift for fantasy.

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I was introduced to Freckles when I was ten or eleven, and have reread it many times, as well as all Gene Stratton-Porter’s other fiction. I was brought up to appreciate nature and the environment, but this book really drove home ideas about the need to revere Mother Nature’s majesty and bounty.  The story is painful in ways, because at the same time that it exalts the glories of nature, the main storyline is about logging old-growth swampland and destroying the very Mother Nature the book celebrates.  Porter was trying to get people to see what was happening before it was too late.

Freckles is a story about a young man (an orphan, by the way) who leaves the city for a job as guard of a large timber lease in dense Indiana swampland, the Limberlost. His conversion from fearful city boy to ardent lover of nature is assisted by a great cast of characters, including the memorable Bird Woman who goes all over the countryside photographing wildlife. Another of Stratton-Porters novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, is set in the same area, with some overlapping characters including the Bird Woman.

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Gene Stratton-Porter in her outdoor gear

Gene Stratton-Porter was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in conservation thought, who pursued her early career in writing, nature photography, and conservation largely in secret. She was the real-life “Bird Woman” of her novels, photographing birds, moths, and other wildlife at all hours, in incredibly difficult conditions, in order to preserve it and share it with the world. She only agreed to write novels so that her publisher would print her non-fiction nature books.  I was strongly influenced by both her and her writings to be a more ardent environmentalist and a woman who stands by her values (whether they are popular or not).

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The first time I read Daddy-Long-Legs I was about nine years old.  There were many orphan novels written in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries; I read and re-read lots of them, including Understood Betsy, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom, among others. Daddy-Long-Legs stands out in my memory for several reasons. We meet Judy Abbott as a young adult of eighteen rather than a child. Unlike most orphan novels of the period, she has grown up entirely in an orphanage, never experiencing a traditional home setting. She leaves the orphanage for the first time in order to attend college.

The novel is told in the form of Judy’s letters to her benefactor (she calls him “Daddy-Long-Legs,” thus the book’s title), who is paying for her college education (at a time when women going to college was still out of the ordinary).  This was the first novel I read that was in letter form, and I was very taken by that writing style, and impressed by how well I was able to come to know the characters despite what seemed (to me) to be a difficult form of delivery.  It helped me to see how I too could write letters that went beyond delivering facts, to set a scene and bring my reader into my world in a more complete way. 

Judy was experiencing the world outside the orphanage for the first time, and I was enthralled by her fascination with everything around her and her joie-de-vivre, though at the same time appalled at all the things she had missed growing up. She had never seen paper money, never been on a train or in a car, never set foot inside a house, never known anything of what it meant to have a family. It made me realize more fully just how fortunate I was, and how much I had experienced that I took for granted. I think this novel, more than any other, made me realize how different each of our experiences is, how varied our opportunities are. It made me more actively appreciative of my own childhood, and helped me to value each person’s perspective on life.

So there you have my three book picks. What about you? What three childhood books most influenced your life?

 

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