Allison's Book Bag

Aspiring Writers in Juvenile Fiction

Posted on: August 15, 2011

Perhaps because my dad surrounded me with books as a child, I grew up wanting to be a writer. As such, I made up stories about characters from radio shows, responded to picture prompts from teachers with the longest stories in my class, and imagined stories about my dolls. When opportunities arose, I also entered essay and poetry contests for students, and contributed to our school newspaper. No doubt, it also helped that during my teens my dad enrolled in a creative writing course and encouraged me to take one too. Still, during my youth, I didn’t know anyone other than my dad who liked to write, and certainly didn’t know any published authors.

Books were my main source of inspiration and information. When my husband suggested that one way to review books from my childhood would be to compile round-ups, my first thought was to review the books that have most influenced me. Doing this would let me to share something of myself with you. With school upon me again, it also seemed like an appropriate time. Soon I will be talking with my students about writing and helping them compose their own works. Enjoy this round-up of beloved books from my childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer.

LITTLE WOMEN

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Everyone is no doubt familiar this opening line. It comes from the first book in this round-up: Little Women, the beloved classic of the four young March girls. Meet sixteen-year-old Meg, the plump and matronly oldest sister; Jo, the awkward and rambunctious tomboy; Amy, the spoiled and artistic blond; and Beth, the quiet and reserved youngest sister. With their father away at war, the girls grow up under the watchful eye of Marmee.

Despite the absence of their father, the family is close knit. The Marches sing together. They help the needy, even to the point of giving up their Christmas breakfast to help a starving family. Not being rich themselves, they produce their own plays and a family newspaper for entertainment. Under the moral direction of their mother, they also learn many life lessons. I embraced many of the principles myself such as refusing to let the sun go down on my anger.

Of course, the March family is not perfect, which is why we love them. Meg succumbs to vanity a party when she borrows a dress that is far too stiff with a train that is far too long. She also fears during dances that her earrings will fall off. Jo refuses to forgive her sister Amy for an act of vengeance, until a skating disaster reunites them. Amy receives the strap at school for ignoring a rule about candy. And Beth loses a beloved bird during a disastrous week when the girls experiment with idleness. Even the one who most often instills moral guidance, Mrs. March, admits that it’s taken her over forty years to only partially cure her anger.

While the entire family is creative, Jo is the writer amongst them. This is my main reason for liking her best. We’re both always reading. Jo also likes to receive books as presents. My dad gives me at least one book upon each special occasion. Jo is attracted most to homes where the owners have libraries, to the point that she visits her Aunt March solely because of her huge library and feels that the boy next door (Laurie) is rich less for his money and more for his library. To this day, I cannot easily walk past a library or bookstore. If I venture inside, my husband almost has to drag me out. Jo most typically cites examples from literature to prove her points. In high school, for a computer programming project, I created a lengthy literature quiz. The places I most desire to visit are literary (or nature) spots.

We also both regularly write! Jo writes plays and contributes news to the family newsletter. Growing up, I entered writing contests, wrote the longest stories in class, and kept a diary. As an adult, I wrote plays for my dad’s students to act out in their class assemblies and for a local animal shelter to use in their educational curriculum. I also create family newsletters. Jo loves sharing stories about what happens in her life. My husband often teases me after a lengthy explanation by quipping: “That was a lovely story.” Unlike Jo, others tend to correct my spoken grammar rather than the other way around.

ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS

“I’m ashamed of you.”

Julia’s mom says this to the main character Julia Redfern, in the second book in my round-up: A Room Made of Windows. On its heels is her brother’s admonition: “You’re a selfish kid. Why couldn’t you let her go and have some fun?”

Julia’s father died at war and her mom is dating again. On this particular night, fourteen-year-old Julia tells her mother off for not taking her to attend a play. Her mom explains that it’s a play for adults. Besides, no one had promised Julia that she could attend. Julia feels that is a lie. Moreover, she’d bragged about attending the play and will be embarrassed when her friends find out the truth.

When her mother and ‘That One’ (her despised boyfriend) leave, Julia escapes to her room to vent. She pours out her feelings in her Book of Strangeness, where she also compiles lists. Then she turns to her story. Julia’s so excited when she finishes that despite the late hour she heads out to mail it. Her best friend’s drunken father intercepts her, steals her envelope, and refuses to return it until neighbor Rhiannon Moore appears.

A Room Made of Windows contains lengthy chapters that are heavier on character development than action. In the first half of the book, Julia has met with an editor about her story, gone out with her family to celebrate her publication success, and lost her two cats. Otherwise, most of the other happenings amount to interactions between characters. These people include Julia’s family: her mom, her brother who’s a history addict, her grandparents with whom the family’s moved in, along with aunts and uncles. As for Julia’s friends, there is Addie and her dysfunctional family, Leslie who writes poetry, and Rhiannon who’s a retired pianist. There’s also her mother’s boyfriend: Phil.

Despite the book’s slow pace, I grew up loving it because of how I much identified with Julia. We’re both sensitive. When Phil reprimands her for standing too close to the edge of a balcony, Julia lashes out at him for trying to take on the role of a father. I become similarly defensive if reprimanded. When Addie’s grandmother orders her to stop playing their piano, Julia trudges instead of hustling off. If hurried, I tend to make impulsive decisions or to freeze like a deer in headlights. Julia is also passionate. When waiting to hear the fate of her submitted story, a “mingling of eagerness and anxiety would sharpen painfully in her stomach”. When her cats are missing, Julia felt “a sick, hollow ache in the place in her middle where she knew and felt all sad or disappointing or enraging or terrible things”.

Of course, the way I most identified with Julia is in her desire to become a writer. Julia loved words and kept lists of them. Growing up, I devoured both the dictionary and the thesaurus. Unlike Jo March, Julia and I often incorrectly use or invent words. For that reason, I relate to Julia’s sentiment: “It was always awful to have to use words you weren’t sure about, to have to use them in front of people and not just in your own head, and see everyone tickled inside themselves.” Julia also wrote stories and would think them out, down to the last detail, before going to bed. To my regret, this latter habit becomes less ingrained the older I become. Julia also influenced me in that for awhile I kept lists of words and strange events and tried turning dreams into stories. Even though my habits have changed here too, like Julia I do view writing as my special work. I intend to keep working on it and making grow. And I’m pretty sure that my feelings and pains will help me as a writer.

HARRIET THE SPY

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.”

This line is from one of perhaps the most famous aspiring writers in juvenile fiction. Harriet M. Welsh is a spy who is also a writer. When readers first encounter her, Harriet is telling her friend Sport how to play Town: You make up and write down the names of people, make up what they do, and then write down their stories. If Harriet were real, I bet she’d play The Sims (a computer game that allows players to create families and control actions.)

“It won’t do you a bit of good to know anything if you don’t do anything with it.”

This advice comes from Ole Golly, who takes care of Harriet. The next time you hear a screaming kid, think of Harriet. One of the more controversial characters in children’s literature, she isn’t a particularly nice girl. Harriet runs through the house, slams doors, and yells at adults. She is opinionated, recording blunt facts about her neighbors but also ridiculing even her friends in her journals. She’s also rude. Once she interrupted a family dinner to scream: “I’ll be damned if I go to dancing school!” Harriet is no more of a role model than Greg Heffly of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame, but remains as popular and as loved.

Shortly after readers are first introduced to Harriet, she starts sixth grade. Some of the book’s action occurs at school. Her class nominates an officer, whose job it is to monitor students when the teacher is out of the room and, for some reason, to also serve as the editor of the school paper. Her class votes on a suitable Christmas play and pick one about Christmas foods. Some action occurs on Harriet’s spy routes. She observes: Mrs. Agatha K Plumber who is a theatrical lady that refuses to leave bed, the Santi family who run a grocery store, Harrison Withers who owns twenty-five cats, and the Robinsons who never talk to each other. In the light of mostly absent parents, the most stabilizing forces in Harriet’s life are Ole Golly and her friends Sport, whose dad is a struggling writer, and Janie, who is an aspiring scientist who might build a bomb to blow up the world. In the second half of the book, Harriet’s life is turned upside down when she loses those stabilizing forces.

Except for the fact we were both only children, the dominant way I identify with Harriet is that she wants to be a writer. As with most authors, she loves books. Harriet also keeps a notebook and never goes anywhere without it. She uses it to take notes about people whom she watches so that she can remember them. She has fourteen notebooks. While I do keep a notebook, mine are more sporadic and objective. While I also do not have a route, and am not sure anyone should, I do like to sit in parks and stores to watch people. In my notebook, I describe how people look, but mostly have fun capturing conversations on paper. Harriet’s practice of keeping notes has inspired many an author.

UP A ROAD SLOWLY

Read my earlier review here.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Read my earlier review here.

EMILY OF NEW MOON

“Emily didn’t know that was being pitied.”

This observation is made by Lucy Maud Montgomery in describing her favorite character of mine: Emily of New Moon. Emily lives with her father and caretaker Ellen Greene in a house in the hollow, which is situated in a grassy dale. Emily doesn’t much care for Ellen, but she loves her father.  She also has the company of her cats, the wind whom she calls Wind Woman, and the trees for whom she also has names. In the opening chapter, her father is sick. Once he drifts off to sleep, Emily slips away for a twilight walk.

“Do you know that your pa has only a week or two more to live?”

These words of Ellen greet Emily upon her return from her glorious walk. When her father awakes later, he berates Ellen for having revealed this truth to Emily in such a hurtful way.Then he shares memories with Emily of her mother and of the Murray clan.

When he dies, Ellen still doesn’t offer Emily comfort. She informs Emily that her relatives are coming to the house to decide who will raise her. Emily expresses the wish that her relatives will love her. Ellen denies her even this hope, calling Emily a strange child because she lives in her imagination as well as advising Emily that people don’t love strange children.

Upon their arrival, the relatives pick Emily apart in her presence, meaning they argue about who she looks and acts like down to whose forehead she has. Emily declares to their faces that they make her feel like “scraps and patches”. Her relatives order her to leave, but Emily hides under the table to hear her fate. When the relatives begin to criticize her father, Emily gives herself away by rushing out and yelling at them in her father’s defense. Tired of her outbursts, the relatives draw straws to determine who should take her. The rest of the book is about her life with the “winners”.

Although I love Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon is my favorite creation of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Both girls are imaginative, outspoken, and passionate. Yet unlike Anne, Emily is more introverted with darker moods and less social grace. Perhaps for these reasons, Emily is often rejected for her differences, rather than embraced and loved like Anne. Therefore, I feel more akin to Emily.

How does Emily act like a writer? How am I like her? Although often forbidden access to them, Emily loves books. She’s also an imaginative child. In her mind, she transforms the ground into fairy kingdoms and the sky into palaces of the gods. Upon my most recent visit to my home province, my husband and I took treks through the hills and woods that I had explored as a child. I remembered how every spot had held adventure for me in my imagination. Emily needs to capture everything she sees and feels to paper. Sometimes I do, while other times I feel content to compose writings in my head. Emily keeps journals, writes letters, and composes poems. Although I grew up requesting diaries for presents and writing letters to pen pals, poetry only became a past time for me when I discovered the Emily series. I don’t know if anyone could stop Emily from writing, but she also loves to receive encouragement for it. I consider myself blessed that both my dad and now my husband have long been my biggest supporters in my goal to become a writer.

RASCAL

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life.”

This statement refers to Rascal. It is the introduction by Sterling North to the memories of his childhood. In the first chapter of his fictional memoir, Sterling heads out with his dog Wowser and his best friend Oscar to the woods and across a creek. In the process of digging at a rotten stump, Wowser frightens a mother raccoon. Sterling takes one of the young that she leaves behind. Oscar’s mom shows the boys how to feed a raccoon.

Thus, begins the adventures of a boy and his raccoon. School is out, giving ample time for both to bond. In the midst of exposition about his family and ponderings about how God could have allowed his mom to die, Sterling shares how Rascal learns to eat and fend for himself without a mother. For example, Rascal figures out how to catch fish. Sterling describes how Rascal becomes part of their household. Rascal is even allowed to eat at the table, where Rascal is dumbfounded when a piece of sugar melts when he dips it into a bowl of milk. And Sterling explains how smart Rascal is. Rascal is quick to learn how to unbolt the front door, so that he can come and go at night.

The two head off to Indian Ford, which has a bridge with girders where boys would dare themselves to dive. It also had a secret fishing place. At the latter, after being pinched several times, Rascal catches and crushes the head of a crayfish. After Sterling also catches some fish by wading into the water, boy and raccoon share a soft drink. Rascal develops a fondness for strawberry but not the lemon sour.

Shortly after this adventure, one of Sterling’s older sisters comes to visit. She hires a housekeeper, makes home cooked meals, and orders Sterling to remove the canoe from the living room. By the way, raccoons were not the only animal Sterling had brought home. His sister was none too happy to also discover a crow that liked to shout in church and even some skunks. You might think her visit would have changed their life but, soon enough, Sterling’s sister returned to her home. Then Sterling resumes his fairly independent life, which is far from lonely or boring, because of the critters he brings home.

Rascal might seem like an odd choice to include in a round-up of books about authors. Indeed, the book and others like it probably far better inspired one of my many career ideas that didn’t pan out: that of being a naturalist. Yet there’s one scene which has stuck with me. When his aunt Lillie talks with Sterling about his career choices, she doesn’t think he should be a doctor. He is too tenderhearted. Instead she suggests that his Mother would have wanted him to write. “Then you could put it all down …. the way it is now … You could just keep it like this forever.” Although I aspire to be a novelist, I also create family newsletters and keep day journals, pet journals, and trip journals because I wish to keep a record of our family’s life as it is.

How about you? What was your dream job? Did books inspire your choice? If so, what ones and how? Aside from their encouraging me as a writer, all of the above books would also fall under my list of favorite novels to read. If you haven’t read some of them, borrow them and let me know what you think. If you have read them, what did you think of them? If you liked this round-up, add your ideas about what other themes you’d like me to explore. Then come back next week for another round-up, this time of books for young people on how to become a writer.

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4 Responses to "Aspiring Writers in Juvenile Fiction"

Rascal definitely influenced me. My Side of the Mountain, Swiss Family Robinson. Andre North’s Witchworld books.

I’m familiar with all but the Witchworld books. For others who are unfamilar with Andre Norton’s books, this article encourages readers to try them out: Who is Andre Norton?

“What was your dream job? Did books inspire your choice? If so, what ones and how?” In elementary school I wanted to be an ornithologist (a person who studies birds) and in high school I wanted to be a veterinarian (an animal doctor). My desire to be an ornithologist may have been inspired by my being given a little guide to birds to read on the long train trip from southern Ontario to my father’s new pastorate in northern Ontario; on the other hand, I may have been given the book because of my being interested in birds. My desire to be a veterinarian was likely inspired by my love for our family pets, especially the dogs, which I spent hours walking.

“If you have read them, what did you think of them?” I’ve read all of them, but as an adult rather than as a juvenile. As a juvenile, I read mainly library books, my family’s not being able to afford many books of its own. As an adult, I tried to surround my daughter (Allison) with the best juvenile books, which I read as eagerly as she did and introduced some of to my grade five class. I loved (and still love) all of the books in “Aspiring Writers in Juvenile Fiction” but am not going to comment individually on them, thinking that you’ve given excellent summaries of them and of how they influenced you, both as a person and as an aspiring writer. Best wishes in your desire to be a published writer and especially in your desire to be a novelist.

Thanks for your comments! Partly inspired by your love of animals and partly inspired by all the animal fiction (including Rascal) that you surrounded me with, for a long time I wanted to become a naturalist. No matter how many times my career aspirations changed, however, I always wanted to become an author. Today while I work towards that dream, I try to instill a love of reading and writing into my students.

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