When I was a child, like many novelists I know, I was an avid reader. A trip to the library was exciting to me as an outing to an amusement park. Adventure awaited me between the covers of those books. I couldn’t wait for the Scholastic book fair at school. I can still remember the slick feel of the newspaper print order form, the sweet smell of the ink, the thrill I felt when I discovered a new book that appealed to me. My mother always let me choose two books, and I couldn’t wait until the day the teacher opened the cardboard box and called us up, one by one, to collect our new books.
Inevitably, my choices at the library or the book fair always included a historical novel. A historical novel was a peek into the past, a mysterious world where girls wore hoops skirts, poke bonnets, or animal skins. Where they helped build a sod house, yearned for Papa to return safe from India, and learned to make a spear.
I can remember exactly where I was when I cried over ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell. The book is based on the real life story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Indian who was the only occupant of a California coastal island in the 19th century. In O’Dell’s fictionalized account, the main character Karana and her brother, Ramo, live alone on the island after a tragedy causes the natives to leave. When Ramo is killed by feral dogs, a grieving Karana has to find the strength to take on the man’s role. I was a fourth grader, and it was the first time I had ever wept while reading a book. I was staying the night at my friend Gina’s, and while she was doing her chores, I took out the book while I waited. I remember sitting cross-legged on Gina’s purple shag pile rug next to her enviable canopy bed, and trying desperately to stop crying. It was also the first time I’d ever cried over someone else’s plight other than my own. My heart broke along with Karana’s.
Perhaps my favorite historical children’s book of all time is A LITTLE PRINCESS, the 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My mother bought me the book on a trip, along with another favorite historical children’s book, HEIDI, by Johanna Spyri. In A LITTLE PRINCESS, seven-year-old Sara Crew’s wealthy father brings her to Miss Minchin’s boarding school in London and returns to India. Sara makes many friends, including the babyish Lottie and unpopular Ermengarde, and Becky the school’s benighted scullery maid. When Sara’s papa dies, she falls on hard times and is forced to become a maid in the school. But through it all she remains a “little princess,” continuing to be kind to those more unfortunate. Sara is saved when her father’s old friend comes looking for her. It is a magical tale, and even when I read it to this day I’m swept back to my childhood, to the very day I first opened the book and was introduced to Sara’s amazing doll Emily.
HEIDI tells the story of a young orphan sent to live with her grandfather, known as the Alm Uncle, in the Swiss Alps. Her sweet nature turns the grumpy grandfather into a kindly man, and Heidi charms all who meet her. What I loved most about HEIDI were the goats, Swanli and Barli. I wanted those goats to be mine so much, and I’d read and re-read the chapter where the goats go up to their mountain pasture, and in a way I felt they were mine. When grandfather served their milk and cheese to Heidi, I swear I could taste it myself, even though I had never tried goat’s milk before. I never doubted that Clara grew stronger because of their milk. Today I have four goats of my own, one is named Barley, in honor of Heidi’s Barli.
And of course, my list of childhood favorites wouldn’t be complete without Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I went along with Laura on every step of her journey as her father, Charles Ingalls, took his family from Wisconsin to Indian Territory in Kansas. With Laura I experienced the harvest, a Christmas where striped peppermint sticks and an orange were pure luxury, a pig slaughter, a bout of malaria, and a visit from Indians. My father bought a gingham poke bonnet for me at a gift shop while I was in my LITTLE HOUSE phase and I wore it everywhere. It looked great with a t-shirt and jeans!
I still have these books on my shelves, the same well-thumbed pages I turned as a child. All I need to do to go back in time is to open the cover, sit on the floor, and I’m there.
What are some of your favorites?
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, an Edwardian-era novel about a young artist finding her own way during the time of militant suffragettes (Viking/Penguin, Winter 2014). You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.