Last week we were talking a little about early influences — how we got started storytelling, what influenced us, listing books we loved, and the dolls and teddies and whatnot – so fun! – with the occasional Barbie and Cabbage Patch and fairy tale image tossed in there. And I was thinking about some of the books I loved as a kid, because these early reads are not only important in the shaping of ourselves as people, but as writers too, very much so. Some of the ones I loved are pretty familiar choices, Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and Little Women, Heidi, The Silver Skates, The Velveteen Rabbit… the list goes on and on, and you know the books on it already, because chances are you read a lot of those stories too.
I sobbed my eyes out over Heidi, Pollyanna, The Five Little Peppers, and Little Women (though, unlike Joey on "Friends," I didn’t have to hide it in the freezer because of the scary parts!), and I laughed over others, like Otis Spofford and Ellen Tebbits… I was fascinated by A Wrinkle in Time, and some of them – sorry to say – didn’t appeal (Anne of G.G. for some reason annoyed the heck out of me). Most of them I read not only once, but again and again. I lived in their homes, thought their thoughts, learned, grew, loved it. There’s really too many to count when you’re a crazy-mad reading kid like I was.
But I started thinking the other day about what single book, or single character, appealed to me the most, bar none. Who did I want to be, who helped me, who endeared herself to me more than anyone else?
Pippi! Pippi Longstocking was my girl. I read those books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board, Pippi in the South Seas, all by Astrid Lindgren) until they were in tatters, got new ones, tattered those. I adored Pippi… she fascinated me, and made me laugh every time over her silliness and her bold goofy heart. She made me cheer, made me want to be her, funny and unique, brave and independent, and very, very kind. She was way more interesting to me than Pollyanna or Anne of Green Gables, and she didn’t make my heart break like Beth in Little Women.
Running a close second was Beverly Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits – but I didn’t have to aspire to be Ellen. I was Ellen. Her world was similar to mine, and everything that went wrong for her had gone wrong for me in some similar way. I could have been pulling a beet out of someone’s garden in the rain, or wearing itchy long underwear. I totally identifed with Ellen, and read those books over and over.
Ah, but Pippi. I couldn’t be her. Couldn’t come even close. She had spitfire down to an art. I didn’t have a lick of it as a timid little kid. She could do what she wanted, live alone, no parents to complicate things (mother was an angel, father was a sea captain, always on his way home to fetch her) – and she had her own house, her own horse, her own monkey, and pirate gold. She was stronger and braver and brassier (I could use another word but hey, I won’t!) than anyone. Pippi said what she wanted, stood up to anyone, threw robbers out and rescued kids from fire, and didn’t have to go to school (even though I wanted to go to school, and loved learning, I appreciated the sentiment!). And I, stuck in my Ellen-Tebbitsian world, longed for that sort of freedom and fire.
…said the teacher, "And now I will tell you that seven and five are twelve."
See that!" said Pippi. "You knew it yourself. Why are you asking then?"
She had the same color hair as my mother, which I loved (though my mother’s bright red-orange hair didn’t stick out in pigtails, it was thick, wavy, and quite the beacon in a crowd–she was once asked if she dyed it, to which her reply was, "Why would I dye my hair this color?!"). I used to imagine slinging a rope from my bedroom window over to the neighbors and zipping over there, but the kids who lived there were not as cooperative and pleasant as Tommy and Annika, and I’d probably fall anyway. Astrid Lindgren was brilliant– because Pippi was a kid’s delight, all the freedom and chutzpah a kid could ever want, and Tommy and Annika were EveryKid, the placeholders for the readers.
Pippi was a fantasy, sometimes way too silly and over-the-top, and not someone who fit into my world, but why did she appeal to me so much? She could do what she wanted–I could not, always. She had the red hair that my mom had, but I didn’t get (really, it was cool). AND she opened a door for me on imagination and creativity, opened it wider in some ways than some of the other books. She taught me that you have to let go, let loose, let it fly to get that creativity up and off the ground. And I still benefit from that to this day.
There’s a little bit of Pippi in me still, and a little Pippi in some of the heroines I write, particularly when it comes to humor, sass, and fiesty moments. Now that I’m using my imagination for a full-time occupation and living, I do owe some of that to Pippi.
After all, she did teach me some very useful stuff:
"Can you dance the schottische?" asked Pippi, looking him gravely in the eye. "I can."
So how about you all? What was your favorite book as a kid, and your favorite character? Who did you identify with, or wish you could be — and what character made a difference in your life?
p.s. The drawing is of my sister reading, by me, Susan King, from years ago….