I distinctly remember the day my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Jones, told us about a special, extra-credit assignment: a chance to join a classroom reading club. If we read the books she was about to list on the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard—this was the early 1980s), and if we answered a few questions about the books, we would be able to eat lunch with the teacher! In the classroom!
Many kids probably stopped listening when she said the words “extra-credit assignment,” but my ears perked up and I sat up tall and alert. Ms. Jones wrote the name of an author on the board:
Frances Hodgson Burnett
I had never heard of the author, and I wasn’t even sure if it was a woman or a man (Burnett was a female author/playwright who lived from 1849-1924). Ms. Jones then listed three of Burnett’s books:
The Secret Garden
Little Lord Fauntleroy
I started out with A Little Princess. Burnett immediately sucked me in with her tale of an imaginative girl named Sara Crewe who falls from wealth into poverty in early-1900s London. In fact, I wrote of my love for this book back in a 2012 post on this site, and I’ll repeat what I said back then: through this novel, I learned about class struggles of the era and the contrasts between the time period’s grand beauty and unbearable ugliness. The book felt like both fantasy and realism—a fascinating combination.
Before the special lunch day, I also had time to read The Secret Garden, which, too, mesmerized me with its depiction of the past as a place of both grandeur and unspeakable sadness. In my mind’s eye, the setting and clothing were gorgeous, haunting, and magical, and the dark secrets and character struggles made for an absolutely compelling read.
I indeed got to eat lunch with Ms. Jones and a handful of other brand-new Frances Hodgson Burnett fans. I distinctly remember our teacher bought us fast-food hamburgers, and I didn’t like mine much because it was a cheeseburger, and I don’t like cheese. More importantly, however, that special class project opened my eyes to literature set in the past. It led me to where I am today.
Throughout the rest of my elementary school years, I discovered other beloved classic and historical novels. Favorites included Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
My love of history and literature continued into high school and college, and in my early years of adulthood I tended to read nothing but historical fiction. I started writing my first attempt at a historical novel when I was eleven, in the sixth grade. It would take me several more decades and numerous manuscript attempts before I would ever sell my first book to a publisher, but not surprisingly, my debut was a historical novel (In the Shadow of Blackbirds).
So, thank you, Ms. Jones, for creating that special reading club. Thank you for choosing Frances Hodgson Burnett as our first author to study. The path I’m on today can be traced directly back to your classroom at Crown Valley Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California, and I’m extremely grateful.