Depending on when you ask me, the mood I’m in, I’m apt to give you a different answer to the question, “What was your favorite children’s book?” Sometimes I might answer, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The full title is actually A Little Princess, Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Being Told for the First Time). Other times, I’ll say Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It surprises me, then, that I’m now casting the exercise in a different light. If I tried to resurrect the good feelings that surrounded the experience, I would have a hard time saying which one made me feel the best. Memory plays tricks, especially if the experience is weighted with emotion.
I’m doing just that right now — resurrecting the early emotional experiences of reading — and trying to dissect how I felt in the moment. I read Misty several times; what made that such an enjoyable read was its ability to allow me to imagine myself owning a pony. . . that I would have bought at Pony Penning Day. It’s a common fantasy for little girls, and I fell hard in my pony yearning. It would last until I fell hard for boys.
Misty was, I believe, as much about the illustrations as the story. Maybe even more. Years later, the name of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, would come more readily to mind than the author’s name. I began to search for books that he illustrated, finding that he regularly did the artwork for Henry. I enjoyed those other stories, including The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but not as much as Misty.
While I’m pretty certain that I bought Misty at one of those Scholastic Book Club fairs that schools often had (and still do), the mysterious appearance of A Little Princess serves as an enduring vexation. I loved its story, even more, perhaps, than Misty, and greedily — no matter where I was in my reading — sought out the illustrations, scant as they were. Try as I might, I cannot call to mind where the book came from. Nothing was ever said about it, and because nothing was ever said about it, I concluded that it wasn’t for me to know. But, why wouldn’t the “benefactor” (as I would always view the anonymous person who put it conspicuously in my path) make a show upon presenting it?
Reading A Little Princess was a much different experience from reading Misty. The first time I held the book in my lap, I had shut myself in our upstairs closet. The closet was a favorite hideaway for all of us Morrisseys. It was a roomy space in the eaves between the two upstairs bedrooms. Importantly, it had lighting — a single lightbulb screwed into a porcelain lampholder with a chain pull, within easy reach of the deep cocoon that one could make with the sleeping bags and blankets. Surrounding my nest were army cots, Christmas decorations, boxes of photos and other items either permanently forgotten or relegated to uncertain status. The closet had a door. I was only seven years old, but even then I understood the value of solitude and privacy.
My pleasure in reading A Little Princess was intimate, private, and solitary. One might say it was transformative. It was the first time that I could truly feel I was escaping, not just my family, but my tiny life. I lost myself in the story; it defined for me — for all time — the chief purpose of books, that is, to imagine oneself in another place, another time, and in different circumstances. It wasn’t as if, at age seven, I was weighed down with fearsome burdens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that I discovered for the first time that books offered magical alternatives, and, yes, temporary escape. Who wouldn’t love that, no matter what your life was like?
Nowadays, I typically have two, three, sometimes four books going simultaneously.* Even if I’m reading nonfiction, there’s a need to consider how the topic might tie into my life. It’s never remote or static. When I’m reading about specific moments in World War II, for example, I ask myself, how would my life be impacted if I were, say, a Frenchwoman living in Paris when Germany invaded the city in May of 1940? Teasing out that thought allows me to conclude that many residents — especially single women — found their options to be especially difficult. I can better appreciate their conflicted feelings about collaborating with the Nazis. If you’re starving or afraid, your unfortunate decisions are thus shaped.
That’s merely one example of how books can shape our thinking, broaden our understanding of the world. Whether it be fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, etc., in some sense we are all looking to be transported. And although a return to a much earlier favorite might not produce the same feelings — in fact, it likely will not because our adult needs are far removed from those of our childhood years — we never stop seeking opportunities to deflect our current worries and to occupy our minds with more pleasant alternatives.
*I should point out that although I read a lot, my brain often does a vigorous scrubbing; i.e., I’m apt to forget what I’ve read just as soon as I put the book aside.
Question for my readers: Can you think of books that, as a child or even now as an adult, you found transformative or influential?