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Children’s Books

Ballet Shoes: Illustration by Ruth Gervis, found here

Which characters did you like best in your favourite childhood books? Were you more of a Jo or an Amy, a Pauline or a Petrova? I’ve recently been thinking about how readers identify with fictional characters and how important this was in my experience of reading as a child. My thoughts below are of course only based on my own experience so I hope I won’t generalise too much – I would like to hear other people’s differing opinions too.

Although sympathy with particular characters is still very much part of the pleasure of reading for me now, I think the role it played for me in childhood was quite different. Obviously I read much less critically or analytically when I was younger; I chose my favourite character in each book quite consciously and virtually lived the story through their eyes. I wonder if the importance of this experience of completely absorbed sympathy is the reason for the number of children’s books featuring a group of characters, all with very different personalities, inviting the reader to find an equivalent of himself or herself somewhere among the crowd. I’m thinking of Noel Streatfeild’s or Enid Blyton’s novels, or L.M. Montgomery’s The Story Girl and The Golden Road.

I find people’s memories of children’s books interesting because I think looking back on which character you felt for the most tells you something about your younger self. Identifying with a character reveals something about the reader’s personality and how she sees herself, but what kind of fictional alter-ego a reader finds at that age can also show something about how they would like to be in the future. And I think that’s why children’s books can sometimes be inspiring, presenting new possibilities and a future that the reader has never considered before, or simply reflecting someone’s self back to them in fiction in a new, comforting way, showing they are not alone in their experience. At other times children’s books may offer nothing to a particular reader because they can’t see anything at all with which they can sympathise.

When I read Ballet Shoes, my favourite character was Pauline, I think simply because she was quite glamorous and good at acting – I probably also identified with her as the oldest sister and supposedly the most responsible, although luckily I wasn’t in charge of earning money for my family at the age of eleven like Pauline was… I couldn’t identify much with the other sisters as I wasn’t single-minded with an all-consuming talent like Posy and I wasn’t a tomboy interested in mechanics like Petrova (although, now I look back, I really like the character of Petrova, particularly as she took a while to find any encouragement of her own interests, being something of a misfit in such a theatrical family). Anyway, I felt for Pauline through all her successes and humiliations at auditions, even though the chances of me ever going on stage myself were close to zero!

Another of Noel Streatfeild’s books, White Boots, is about two ice-skating friends, Lalla and Harriet. This presented something of a dilemma as I’d have quite liked to resemble Lalla, the talented and outgoing future star of the ice-dancing show, even though she was rather spoilt and bossy, but I knew I was really more like Harriet, quiet, serious and withdrawn. But the book shows that being Harriet isn’t all that bad, really, because as the story progresses she becomes more confident and healthier and begins to dream of a career as a figure skater. I also liked the character of Myra in Apple Bough as, although she doesn’t have an obvious talent like her musical siblings, she is a kind and empathetic person who takes care of the rest of the family. I like the way Noel Streatfeild’s books allow the reader to identify with awkward characters who have trouble fitting in, as well as sometimes showing these characters discovering talents they didn’t know about.

Little Women was another of my favourite books when I was younger. I think Jo is the character most readers like the best because of her spirit, her love of books, and the fact that Louisa May Alcott probably put most of her own personality into the character. However, I always wanted to be Meg. This strikes me as strange because now I think Meg is probably the least interesting of the sisters, and because, as a child, I was always writing stories and reading, just like Jo. Since then I’ve also seen the 1933 film, which my sister and I watched every Christmas for years, growing up, and which has a wonderful performance of Jo by Katharine Hepburn. I expect if I read the book now, my favourite character would be Jo. However, I think, looking back, that I sympathised with Meg’s desire to grow up and get married and have more security in her life. Because I wasn’t very rebellious as a child, it was hard for me to feel much like a Jo. And for the same reason, in the Famous Five books (I’m not a fan of Enid Blyton at all but I did read a vast quantity of her books as a child), I identified more with Anne than with George, which is perhaps an even more unpopular choice and has always felt like something I should be slightly ashamed to admit!

Which characters did you identify with most in the books you read as a child? Did you ever prefer a less obvious character, maybe a different choice from other readers you know? I find this idea of sympathising with the non-obvious or less immediately likeable characters interesting, as I think it shows how individual the experience of reading can be, and how much it’s affected by the reader’s own particular character and circumstances. It also suggests to me the complexity of fiction, showing that it may contain more possibilities than the author consciously knew, and that a book may inspire someone in an unexpected way.

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Picture: Brassai, ‘Chat au rideau de dentelle’ (1937)

Over the past couple of days I’ve re-read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, some of my favourite childhood reading. Unfortunately I had to read them online as I didn’t have my ancient Puffin copies to hand – the dark-haired girl in the photographs on the Puffin covers was definitely Emily to me, gradually growing older and more elegant (or maybe just changing her hairstyle) from Emily of New Moon (with the pink cover), Emily Climbs (yellow) to Emily’s Quest (blue – yes, I can still remember after about twenty years!).

It’s difficult to convey how much I loved L.M. Montgomery as a child, to the extent that I even occasionally dreamed about her books. I particularly loved The Story Girl and its sequel, The Golden Road, but the Emily books were my favourites. Reading the series again didn’t disappoint me. I think it’s because the reader enters such a vividly atmospheric, detailed and fascinating world, with a surprisingly gothic element. This world is always seen from the imaginative viewpoint of Emily, conveyed through her journals or just in the way her experiences are related. She is able to see intense wonder in the world around her, and I used to love the references to ‘the flash’, a kind of visionary experience Emily has, which happens very suddenly at moments of beauty and mystery.

Emily of New Moon opens dramatically with the death of Emily’s father from consumption, and her move to New Moon where she is brought up rather begrudgingly (at least at first) by Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy. Emily wants to be an author, and her determination to write and struggles to develop her talent are a major part of the books. Her friends Ilse, Perry and Teddy are also very talented in their different ways – Teddy is an aspring artist, Perry a lawyer and Ilse an actress. L.M. Montgomery definitely chooses to write about characters who are unusually brilliant and undoubtedly idealised, but they are always flawed and interesting at the same time. The life of Blair Water, the town where Emily lives, is also full of various eccentric people, who seem to have lives filled with drama and romance. The characters all have their own complexities, passions and secrets, making them much more intriguing and adult than characters in other children’s fiction.

Emily of New Moon also introduces Dean Priest, a mysteriously damaged and compelling character who will play a major part in the heroine’s future; in fact he claims ownership over her life, after saving her from falling over a cliff whilst out walking one day (this episode gives you something of the flavour of the books…). Dean and Emily have a very intense friendship. He seems to fall in love with her when she is only twelve and waits for her to grow up so that he can marry her. I found Dean one of the most interesting characters in the series; he is cynical and intelligent, and somehow has more reality than Teddy, his rival for Emily’s love. I can see why it would be bad for Emily to marry Dean; he is very possessive, and he unfairly criticises Emily’s literary work because he fears it will take her away from him (tragically leading Emily to burn The Seller of Dreams!). And yet there is something in the novels that draws the reader (or just me!) to hope that Emily and Dean will be together. He is a romantic and I can’t help feeling sorry for his sadness and bitter disappointment in life. I wonder what will happen to him at the end of Emily’s Quest, but can’t believe he could find any happiness in life after losing Emily.

Emily Climbs, which follows Emily throughout her teenage years and high school days, has a similar charm and atmosphere to Emily of New Moon. However, I found Emily’s Quest, which takes her from seventeen into her 20s, to be darker and more melancholy. In this book, Emily experiences years of unhappiness and failure. She suffers illness which robs her of her desire to write. At certain points, her journals refer to depression and the desire for suicide. Although there is a happy ending for Emily, she has to wait a long time for it, and she is no longer the romantic idealist she was as a young girl. I read in one of Montgomery’s letters that she enjoyed writing the first two books, but didn’t feel the same about Emily’s Quest and felt it would not be a success. I think this final book does have a different atmosphere and is less joyful, but I think it is just as interesting as the earlier two. I don’t know if it’s really a children’s book; the age range the books are aimed at is difficult to identify, as they are both whimsical and quite dark and adult at times. I enjoyed the series as a child and I enjoyed them at 29, so maybe it doesn’t matter too much. In the end, the allure of the Emily books comes from their unusual and talented heroine, one who I’d find happiness in reading about at any age.