Everything Classic Children’s Literature Taught Me About Writing

Everything Classic Children’s Literature Taught Me About Writing

There’s a scene in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown where Betsy’s mother helps ten-year-old Betsy turn an old trunk into a writing desk.

Naturally, I asked my mother to do the same thing.

If I remember correctly, she let me use an old suitcase. I put my pens and papers inside it, carried it up to the top of the bunkbed I shared with my sister, and pretended I was Betsy Ray for an afternoon.

I didn’t keep using the suitcase, though, because I didn’t need it. I wrote everywhere, filling notebooks and diaries and the backsides of printer paper with stories. It wasn’t the desk that made me a writer.

But it didn’t hurt to have a model like Betsy. She taught me to pay attention to the color of apple blossoms and to get a good night’s sleep before tackling a challenging writing project.

She also taught me that once your writing is out in the world, other people can share and spread it far beyond its original intended readership. Both Betsy Ray and Laura Ingalls, as you might remember, wrote song parodies making fun of peers or teachers. In both cases, the parodies “went viral,” with disastrous consequences.

Describing what I saw

Laura was another childhood role model; even though she doesn’t spend much time writing in the Little House books — possibly because a slate pencil cost a half-penny — any young reader who pays attention to the book’s covers can figure out who Laura Ingalls grew up to become.

Laura taught me to describe the world so it could be understood by someone else.

We see Laura do this literally in By the Shores of Silver Lake, when she describes the train and its passengers to her older sister Mary, who lost her eyesight to scarlet fever. But we also see Laura Ingalls Wilder (along with Rose Wilder Lane) do this throughout the Little House series, describing butter churning and dime sociables and what it felt like to drink lemonade for the first time: the first sip sweet; the second one sour.

I tried to replicate that discovery every time I drank a cup of powdered lemonade — which, of course, was not the same thing.

children's literatureCombining imagination and craft

I also tried to replicate Marilla Cuthbert’s famous raspberry cordial, working with my mom to carefully follow the recipe in The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook. I remember it tasting sticky, and I think we poured most of it down the drain. Like Anne Shirley, I was — and still am — an enthusiastic if not particularly talented cook.

But Anne taught me to use my imagination; to see what a tree or a dress or a potted geranium might become if it were renamed or rewritten. Her shadow-sister Emily (of New Moon) taught me to be assiduous about craft. I love that L.M. Montgomery gave us both of these young writers as models: Anne with her Story Club, sharing their first drafts; Emily, in her attic, cutting out every sentence she’s no longer proud of.

Selling my work and expanding my career

Unlike Anne and her brush with the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company, I’ve never had a problem writing advertorials. I’m much more like Jo March in that aspect; if a publication is willing to pay, then I’m willing to write for them.

Like Jo, I’ve become more discerning about the work I take on as my freelance career has progressed. I also recently published a novel that I describe as a “Millennial Little Women.”

Because that’s what Jo — or, more accurately, Louisa May Alcott — taught me. How to take the emotions you felt growing up and write them into scenarios you might not have personally experienced. How to write characters inspired by people you love. How to go from a girl scribbling plays and stories to share with her family to a woman earning money from her writing.

It’s no coincidence that many of the books I loved as a child featured girls who grew up to be writers. I read widely, Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High and everything the library had to offer, but these were the books I kept returning to before opening my notebook and starting another story. When I was ten years old, I pretended to be Betsy or Laura; when I was older, I asked myself what Jo or Emily or Anne might do.

And when I need guidance — even as an adult — I still return to these stories.

Who are your writing role models? Did you also read books about writers when you were a child, and did they shape the type of writer you became?

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Filed Under: Craft
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16 comments

  • Marie Magoch says:

    My influences were/are fairy tales. Especially the Kincaid books. The drawings and the story are the reasons I wanted to be an author. Right now, I’m just an editor who can write.

  • jonathan mcculloch says:

    i dont have any childrens books that i can remember reading but one thing that sticks in my mind is i went to this primary school called balmalloch primary and it was rabbie burns poem week and i had to stand up in front of the primary and read out a poem called to a crow.

  • Kim says:

    My favorite childhood book is Heidi and another called Freckles. They opened my mind to the fact that books can take you out of your world and transport you somewhere completely different. I moved on to Laura Ingalls Wilder and soon I wanted more adult material to read. After Jaws and Coffee tea or Me, I was ready to move on to Stephen King and others that wrote in this genre.

    • PJ says:

      In the 1960s when I was about 10 I came across my grandmother’s already old copy if Freckles. I loved it too. Thank you for renewing that memory.

  • Kim Duke says:

    Jo, Anne, Laura…three characters I loved reading when I grew-up in my tiny childhood village. My school library was the size of a postage stamp. J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of The Rings swept me away when I was ten years old. It wasn’t one particular book that inspired me to begin writing. It was ALL of them. I loved how a book could take me to far-away lands, to live unusual lives and to see vivid imagery in places I had never been. Thank god for writers everywhere!

  • Andrea says:

    My favorite book when I was a child was a wonderfully illustrated version of Rip Van Winkle. I also enjoyed the Pookie the Rabit series. The images brought the stories to life for me.

  • Reta West says:

    Black Beauty by Anne Sewell

    I had many lessons from that book and author.

  • Kerry Aldridge says:

    My favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird, not quite children’s literature, but I loved it. I understood as a 10 year old that I was fortunate to be born on the right side of the tracks even though we were pretty marginalized ourselves. I learned from that book that it doesn’t matter what side of the tracks we are born on, what our skin color or station in life, racism shouldn’t interfere with justice and to stand up for your beliefs even if you’re the only one standing.

    • D. Day says:

      A Mississippian born at the right time to experience the 1960s as a teenager, I remember this book as teaching me so much about racism and equality. It is still one of my favorite books. I also loved books about dogs and horses. Even younger I read the We Were There series–We Were There When Washington Won at Yorktown; I loved the Walter Farley Black Stallion series. I read voraciously, always wanted to be a writer. But I did not write. We always had work to do and were rushed at our studies.

  • Glenda Wood says:

    Has anybody mentioned Mark Twain, or Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne?

  • Lordy Belance says:

    My favorite children’s books are:
    -Junie B Jones
    -Cam Jansen Mysteries
    -The Babysitters Club
    -Beacon Street Girls
    -Mary-Kate and Ashley books
    -Little Bunny Foo Foo
    -Clifford books
    -Arthur books
    -Rainbow Magic books
    -Little Bill books
    -The Ramona Quimby series
    -Amber Brown series
    -A lot of fairytales and nursery rhymes, such as Sleeping Beauty
    -Books based on my favorite cartoons, such as Maisy
    -Dear Mr. Henshaw
    -Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret.
    -Francie
    -The Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    -Books with a bunch of stories in them (ex: R McMillan Mirrors and Images)

  • I loved “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I completely identified with the young girl and her life challenges and imagined myself in her place sitting on the fire escape.

  • I don’t remember my mother reading to me as a child. She was probably exhausted at the end of the day, after helping my father on the farm. We lived in Southern Rhodesia then, and when I was five years old I had to go to boarding school. I cried solidly for a couple of days, and then stopped that nonsense and consoled other children in the dormitory at night, telling them stories I made up, about Mrs Brown. I still write stories for children and have had several published by Macmillan and Heinemann in South Africa, for school reading books. Writing for me, is like eating peanuts – I can’t stop!

  • Liz says:

    I think this piece needs an addendum: not all the books from your childhood are useful when writing for adults. I may have thought Pat the Bunny was hilarious as a kid but it makes for really lousy inspiration for my current stories. Also, hate to bash Sweet Valley fans out there but those books set a really terrible example for teens as to what to expect in a healthy, emotionally fulfilling adult relationship. Children’s books are written with the presumption that the reader will eventually move on to more intellectually and emotionally complex material. It’s a little scary that there are so many adults who are trying to squeeze back into those “footie” pajamas… metaphorically speaking, of course. Not trying to be a blowhard here but merely a realist.

  • Kylie Sonter says:

    As a child, I loved reading. I read everything I could. My young life was often difficult and books would transport me away from reality. I read Trixie Beldon, Robert Louis Stevensen, animal, historical, fantasy stories. I had many favourites. I lived my life through books and accordingly wrote a lot too. I couldn’t follow a career in writing but after 27 years in a manual job I’m finally trying to work my way back to my roots.

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