Monday, May 10, 2010

A Not So Little Princess

So we just finished a move. Moving is not my favorite thing, but I’m getting pretty good at it. I’ve been married to my husband for 10 ½ years, and in that time we’ve moved 9 times. That’s right, nine.
The one good thing about moving is that I uncover treasures. And some of the treasures I unearthed this time are old books from my childhood. The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were two of the stories that made me who I am today.

Yes, they’re just children’s stories, but they shaped my worldview. Both of these stories were written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A fascinating woman in her own right, she was an author of several classic children’s tales. In fact she could have been one of her own characters. Born in England, in 1849, Frances’s father died when she was five. She grew up in the Manchester slums while her mother struggled to try to make ends meet. When she was 16 her family immigrated to Knoxville, Tennessee at the request of an uncle. Still the family lived in poverty. Then her mother died, and at 18, Frances turned to writing as a means of supporting herself and her two siblings. She married a physician, but later divorced him. A couple years later she married her business manager, but that marriage only lasted two years. She lived until 1924, a successful (and single) author and playwright.

The conventional wisdom is that an author should write what they know. But the two stories for which Ms. Burnett is most known for feature well-heeled English girls who had spent time in India. So how did she manage to create two classics that have translated so well to generations so removed from that lifestyle and/or background.
I guess the difference is that while she might not ever have been to India, she did know what it was like to feel displaced. To lose her parents. To have to live with an uncle she didn’t know.

To work hard.
To dream.
Those are the things that translate and carry the story to us today. Sarah Crewe’s determination to act like a princess (not the diva kind of princess, but the gracious, noblesse oblige kind of way,) no matter what her circumstances, served her well. The image of a girl who could weave a story so beautifully that she transported her friends away from the everyday tedium that surrounded them, birthed in me the desire to tell stories.

Reading those books over and over again made me an anglophile. They instructed me in the art of mystery and romance. (Yep, even a kid’s book.) Made me want to fight for the underdog and immediately suspicious of overly thin school mistresses. So I guess today, I'm a (not so) Little Princess. And I have an author who had been dead for more than 50 years before I was born to thank for that. I really pray that my books could mean that much to someone someday.
What stories did you read as a kid that are still a part of you today? Did a children’s book inspire any choices you made later in life?


  1. Little Women. I wanted to be Jo. I tried to be Jo. I even sent a story (ala Nancy Drew) to the local newspaper. Rejected, of course.

    In a lot of ways I was--am--Jo. But I loved all the girls.

    I need to go read that book again.

  2. I'm right there with you, Sandra! Jo is incredibly relatable. I don't know anyone who reads that book and wants to be any of the other girls. And yet when we compare ourselves to others we so often think we want to be Amy, or maybe Meg. The pretty one, the one with the artistic talent. The one who gets everything! Trips to Europe, the handsome and romantic and rich neighbor. Sigh.

    And yet, Jo finds herself and true love. Yep, I'll take Jo!!

  3. Oh, Lisa, these are two of my absolute favorites! In fact, when my daughter was a baby I bought them both in hardcover with the Tasha Tudor illustrations and inscribed them to her from me. (I don't think she ever read them!) And just this weekend I was telling my niece, who will be going into 4th grade and is a voracious reader, that she simply had to read these two. I definitely think they helped make me love all things British!

  4. I love these stories too. I'm picturing Shirley Temple right now.

    One of the series that affected me, was Maggie Adams Dancer. The books were written several years apart as Maggie the ballerina grew up, ending in her young adulthood, and I felt like I grew up with her. I probably read the first one when I was about ten and Maggie was thirteen. They showed the beauty of the dance world, but also the hard realities like anorexia, drugs, and alternative lifestyles. They were real coming of age stories with Maggie struggling to keep her identity and integrity in the middle of it all.

    I wonder if I would have ever seriously pursued dance if it wasn't for those books?

  5. Moving 9 times in 10 years...YIKES! GOD BLESS YOU!

    My favorite childrens book is "The five little peppers and how they grew." My Nana read it to me at night before I went to sleep. I now read to my granddaughter when we have her. I read to my kids every night when they were little. I love the old classics.

    Blessings, andrea

  6. I love those books, Lisa. Now I'm going to have to re-read The Secret Garden again. My daughter read it for the first time a few years ago and it took me right back to my first time reading it and how I felt when we finally uncovered the secrets...I loved it.

    This is a fun theme and I'm excited to learn all about our favorite childhood books and heroines. One of my favorites (which I'm not writing about) is Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson. Crabbing on the eastern-seaboard seemed so exotic to me as a girl from a western state. Themes of feeling forsaken, family, self-discovery and a bit of romance are just as meaningful to me as an adult as they were when I first read it as an 11-year old. Patterson's such a phenomenal writer too :)

  7. I read A Little Princess over and over until I "graduated" to Little Women. I read that at least annually until I was in my mid-20s.

    I also reread The Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew mystery series quite a bit.

  8. I think there's a film version of Secret Garden but I don't want to see it. I prefer the one in my mind. This is probably my second favorite book (I'll be talking about the #1 on Saturday). You know, I've never read the Little Princess. So maybe I better change that.

    It's clear now how these books affected us. Isn't that wonderful?
    Dina's love of dancing, for instance?

    Oooo, I'll have to read Jacob Have I Loved, too.

    Thanks ladies!

  9. I also read Little Women at least a hundred times. And loved Jo best, of course.

    I loved The Great Brain series and The Black Beauty series. Everything Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume (kids books). I learned so much about myself and my place in the world from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I also loved anything historical. As a teen I fell in love with MM Kaye.

    And I have to confess, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship stripped, I never could finish one Anne of Green Gables books, although loved the 1980s movie. I was never introduced to The Secret Garden and The Little Princess as a child so haven't read them.

    But a great introduction to classics. I may have to hunt down copies and rectify that situation.

  10. I must confess I've never read either of these books. I'm not sure why that is, but I completely missed them. I didn't even know about them until I was an adult. That seems so strange since I was a very well-read child and spent hours upon hours in the library.

    Lisa, I loved reading your take on these books and their author and how she inspired you.

  11. D'Ann-I've bought copies of my favorite books for people more than once. What is it about falling in love with a story that makes us want to convert others!

    Dina-Those books sound fascinating. I don't know if I would believe I had it in me to write a story if I hadn't read these stories, as well as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.

  12. Andrea-I've never read the 5 little peppers. Although I have heard of it. What age group would it be good for?

    Susie-I remember reading Jacob Have I Loved in middle school. Right along with Where the Red Fern Grows and another one, (the title escapes me) about a boy who runs away to live on his own in the Catskill mountains. Or... wait... maybe his plane crash landed. Okay, I think I'm melding two different stories in my head. Perhaps I don't remember them as well as I thought!

  13. PatriciaW-I think A Little Princess was my favorite, but The Secret Garden was such a close second it was a hard call. And yep, I read them both dozens of times.

    Deb-I like the Hallmark version of The Secret Garden. Some of the others I liked much less. Oh and the Shirley Temple version of A Little Princess drastically changed the ending. And some of the other plot points. I'd love to see a more true to the story version come out!

    Wenda-Definitely fix that situation! They are beautiful stories! Did you ever read any Encyclopedia Brown stories? I sooo wanted a photographic memory!

    Suzie-Get yourself to a library asap! But beware, they're the kind of books that make you want to write for children in the hopes that you could write something like it.

  14. What a great post, Lisa! I never knew about the author's past, but it makes The Little Princess even more poignant.

    So many books shaped my childhood! Laura Ingals Wilder made me part of her Little House family. Walter Farley fascinated me with his tales of horses and the racing world and made me long to find a spirited black stallion of my own. Lois Duncan introduced me to the world of teenage thrillers and paranormal fiction. And of course, Nancy Drew took me along on all her sluething adventures. As a child, books were my best friends. I wouldn't be who I am today without them.

  15. Oh, yes! Half-Pint. Definitely loved those stories too. I think I had the whole boxed set at one point. But the First was always my favorite.

    The characters in the stories I read really were my friends, but they were also to a certain extent, me. I went on so many adventures. No wonder, my imagination still serves me well. It got lots of exercise. Unlike my gluteus maximus...

  16. Beautiful post, Lisa!
    Oohh, books helped me through some tough times and loads of school changes and moves.

    I could not begin to list 'em all but loved everything from My Children's Bible to my great aunt's third grade primers to Beautiful Joe, Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, Little Women, Black, Beauty, Five Little Peppers...

    So many books, so little time. Same problem today, but even LESS time!
    Those were the lazy, crazy, hazy days...

  17. Patti, I remember once sitting in a chair by my bedroom window and looking out at the street where all the neighborhood kids were playing. It was a gorgeous day, and the window was open. And I made the conscious decision to sit and read instead of go outside. (I think it was The Boxcar Children) Seems like I never looked back.

  18. Billy used to love the Boxcar Children series! He got a few from the school library, and I scoured garage sales and book stores for the rest!

  19. The Little Princess was one of my absolute favorites! I liked The Secret Garden, too, but I was so frustrated with that whiny little boy. : )
    Let's see, we seem to be compiling very similar lists here, so to the entire Nancy Drew series, Little Women, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, I will add Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Heidi (to this day I cannot eat a dinner roll without thinking of that book), Dangerous Island, the Trixie Belden series, Linnet, Ballet Shoes, Jane Eyre, the Black Stallion series, and Black Beauty. Whew.
    Wenda, don't feel bad, I haven't read any Anne of Green Gables either! Or Christie. Or the complete Chronicles of Narnia, or...

  20. Book Geeks All.
    I feel so at home here.

  21. I haven't read either book although I've watched The Secret Garden movie a couple times with my daughters.

    And I do believe I've moved as many times as you but only because my dad worked on road construction and took us along from job to job.

    Good post, Lisa.

  22. Yep, Deb and Niki, I'm sensing kindred spirits!

    Niki I totally understand what you mean about Colin, but to me Dickon almost makes up for him.

    Ah, Anita! You know my pain. So your poor mama had to move you all as kids? What did you think of the movie. Would Deb be satisfied?

  23. Really nice post, Lisa. I'm with Susie on this one. Growing up on a farm with an extended family I never got to spend much time reading children's books.

    My aunt used to read, Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman, to me. I loved that. In fact it shapes my writing today.

    The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding--
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door

  24. Hey Jilly! Anne Shirley recites this in one of the Anne of Green Gables books. I think the first one, where she and Diana are freaked out in the woods after she fell off the roof and they are trying to get home but she can't run.

    Imagination is so powerful! Especially to frightened teenaged girls!


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