Many of these novels were read to me by my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Diebold. (Teachers, never discount the lasting impact you can have on a child.) And as I think about why I loved these novels—and how much I loved them—I see their impact on me even still, in my decision to become a writer, and in the writing itself.
In no particular order they are as follows (summary followed by my thoughts):
Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards
Mandy, a ten-year-old orphan, dreams of a place to call her own. Escaping over the orphanage wall to explore the outside world, Mandy discovers a tiny deserted cottage in the woods. All through the spring, summer, and fall, Mandy works to make it truly hers. Sometimes she “borrows” things she needs from the orphanage. Sometimes, to guard her secret, she even lies. Then, one stormy night at the cottage, Mandy gets sick, and no one knows how to find her—except a special friend she didn’t know she had.
I can’t help but think of my character Cailey from THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE as I read this short summary. She too is looking for a home, a place to belong. She too has gotten a bad deal in life, but has pluck and gumption, which helps her navigate life.
Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?
Harriet made me realize I wasn’t the only one who was nosy curious. I wasn’t the only one who carried a notebook everywhere I went and recorded the life happening around me, from the significant to the mundane. Harriet made me feel normal.
Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Danny has a life any boy would love—his home is a gypsy caravan, he’s the youngest master car mechanic around, and his best friend is his dad, who never runs out of wonderful stories to tell. But one night Danny discovers a shocking secret that his father has kept hidden for years. Soon Danny finds himself the mastermind behind the most incredible plot ever attempted against nasty Victor Hazell, a wealthy landowner with a bad attitude. Can they pull it off? If so, Danny will truly be the champion of the world.
I like to write about quirky characters who live on the fringe, who don’t quite fit for whatever reason. Danny is such a character, and an unlikely hero to boot. In the original draft of THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, there was a character known only as “The Watcher,” who lived on the fringe and who became an unlikely hero. Though he ended up on the cutting room floor, I know he lives in Sycamore Glen, the fictional neighborhood I created. It is enough just for me to know.
North To Freedom by Anne Holm
David’s entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. He knows nothing of the outside world. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. With his vengeful enemies hot on his heels, David struggles to cope in this strange new world, where his only resources are a compass, a few crusts of bread, his two aching feet, and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. Is that enough to survive?
David’s extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm’s classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.
This book features yet another child enduring hard things and emerging on the other end, changed, yet victorious. I like strong kids. Because I think we all have a strong child still inside of us, reminding us who we once were, urging us to always be working at being better.
Do you have favorite books from your childhood that, in thinking about it, you see informing you today either in your family or your career—or both? Share them with us today!