I was thinking, today, about one of the books I used to love as a child. I was reading through one of my friend’s essays, and it made me remember the book ‘Molly’s Pilgrim’ by Barbara Cohen (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1983), which was made into an Oscar-winning short film. I first read that book in 1996, when I was in fourth grade. It’s about a young girl, Molly, who is a Russian immigrant to America. She and her classmates are assigned a Thanksgiving-themed project: go home and make either a pilgrim or Native American doll for the school display. Molly enlists the help of her mother, who misunderstands the assignment, and looks up the word ‘pilgrim,’ and instead helps Molly make a little Russian immigrant doll. Molly is teased, but the teacher uses the incident to point out that the definition of ‘pilgrim’ is not limited to British immigrants from the 1600s.
The plot is based on a true story; this actually happened to someone in the author’s family. At the time, I connected with it, because I thought what Molly’s mother did was something like what my grandmother might have done to my mother when she was younger. (My mother and grandmother immigrated from the former Yugoslavia). I would think back on this book when I first decided to try to write about my own family’s history.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to write about this story, except that I realize there are three books that I read in fourth grade whose plots and characters have stayed with me throughout my life. There must be something about being nine years old that makes you particularly impressionable; I can’t think of any other books in all of middle or elementary school that have impacted me so much.
The other two books are the Newberry Award-winning ‘The Hundred Dresses’ (Voyager Books, 1944) by Eleanor Estes, and the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (OK, so that technically constitutes more than one book, but for ease of communication/writing, I’ve lumped the series together).
‘The Hundred Dresses’ tells the story of a girl whose family is poor, and so she always wears the same frumpy dress, but she tells all the girls at school who constantly tease her that she has 100 dresses in her closet at home. The narrator is a character who does not tease, but also does not do anything to stop the teasing. In the end, she finds out that there really were 100 dresses in the girl’s closet–but they were drawings of dresses the girl wanted, not actual dresses. I remember being so shocked by this book that I re-read it the second I finished it, and kept re-reading it again and again. I really identified with the narrator; I was pretty quiet in class, and never popular but never an outcast, and it occurred to me in that moment that although I thought I’d been a ‘good little girl,’ that perhaps there was more at stake than simply being quiet and minding my own business–and that the narrator was, in some ways, as guilty as the girls who teased her. That blew my 9-year-old mind away. I felt uncomfortable for days after reading that book. I never even told anyone at the time that I’d read it–I felt guilty about things I could have done or said in the past, and that I knew I wouldn’t have the courage to do or say in the future.
And the Laura Ingalls Wilder books–well, I just plain old loved those, for the sake of story-telling and history. I wished, passionately, for most of my childhood that I had been born in a different era. It just wasn’t fair, I reasoned, that I had missed centuries worth of dresses and ribbons in my hair, and had happened to be born in the one time when I wasn’t allowed to wear a dress every day to school (well, technically I could have, but my 9-year-old mind did not acknowledge the fact that I chose not to wear dresses sometimes because I also liked to run around outside, and dresses, tights, and patent-leather shoes impeded that).
Anyways. I can’t think of any books before these that impacted my life so significantly, and it wasn’t until years later, as a sophomore in high school than any other literature impacted me as significantly (then came T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’). I often consider, as a writer, how the books I read now affect my writing–but I began to think today about how I my writing has been affected by books that made me love reading, made me see just how a good book can lodge itself under your skin in places you can’t brush away.
There’s something to be said about the compelling plots and simple language of really, really good children’s books that can be as powerful as masterful novels.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts about their favorite childhood books. Please feel free to comment!