Everything Classic Children’s Literature Taught Me About Writing

by | Dec 26, 2017 | Craft | 15 comments

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 literature Combining 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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