I’ve always been an avid reader, even before realizing that writing fiction was a job I was allowed to have and would pursue. I consumed stories of every kind, and met characters who thrilled me with their bravery. When I think about the fictional folk who have, and continue to inspire me most, I realize that despite major differences they all have one thing in common: each one found the courage to be themselves no matter who was watching. I’m an only child, and was quiet & reserved (except around close friends) growing up. I didn’t have a live-in peer whose presence alone might force me out of my shell. My interests weren’t widely shared either as far as I knew, so I treasured the friends I made, including the characters in the books I loved most. They were my first friends, and the first to show me that it’s not only OK, but wonderful to be you; because no one else can be. I don’t think we ever stop learning that lesson, which is one reason why story-telling is so important. We all need reminding that other worlds and possibilities exist, and that each of us has the capacity for bravery.
From elementary school to now, these are the characters who light my literary fire 🙂
Matilda (Matilda by Roald Dahl, 1988)
Everyone knows the story of the precocious little girl who could speak in full, perfect sentences by age one and a half, and who’d taught herself to read by the time she was three. I read Matilda as an elementary school kid. I loved reading about a hero who was so young, so brilliant, and so eager to learn more (I also felt levels of rage I couldn’t even understand over the way her family treated her). I used to read so much, I actually got in trouble for it in school (I guess maybe it is a little rude to read while the teacher’s trying to teach ya something, huh?) so, even though I was no child prodigy, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit in Matilda (luckily, my parents were WAAAAAY nicer). The Trunchbull, though despicable, was hilarious to me. I used to read the book out loud so I could speak in different voices for each character. Since I knew Roald Dahl was British, I gave every character an English accent, which made my parents laugh so much.
After every terrible thing Matilda endured, it was so gratifying to see my fictional soulmate get adopted by her biggest supporter, Miss Honey. I can’t remember being more satisfied by a book’s ending than I was by this one, before or since.
‘Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,’ Matilda said to her. ‘Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.’
‘A fine writer will always make you feel that,’ Mrs. Phelps said. ‘And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.’
Harriet (Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964)
I really like diary-style writing. I’ve kept journals for years and have always loved reading what are meant to be a protagonist’s private thoughts in their voice (as opposed to the narrator’s). Harriet is a badass. She has a regular spy route complete with hiding spots where she can catch all the action unnoticed. She keeps (less than flattering) notes on every person she watches in a composition notebook. She also keeps notes on her friends, family, and her nanny, Ole Golly. Eventually her private thoughts are exposed when she loses her notebook…and her friends find it. At the same time, she deals with the loss of her nanny (who leaves to get married). Harriet eventually figures out how to get her friends back without denying or changing who she is, while realizing all the same that some changes (like growing up) are inevitable. One of my favorite aspects of this story is how subtly (and authentically) the effects of Harriet and her friends’ circumstances show through in each of them.
Harriet is a child of Manhattan socialites who barely pay her any attention. Beleaguered Sport, who does the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and handles the finances at home, essentially takes care of his father, not the other way around. And Janie, who conducts dangerous experiments in her homemade lab, is hell-bent on becoming a scientist despite her mother insisting she go to a dance school. They exploded the idea of the “normal, well-adjusted child” for me. Simply mahhhvelous.
Ole Golly held the stage. The other three looked at her in wonder. She seized her moment and spoke:
‘”The time has come,” the Walrus said — “‘
“‘To talk of many things — “‘ Harriet knew the words so well that without a second’s thought she found herself standing at the top of the stairs saying them. All heads turned toward her.
Ole Golly continued: ‘”Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax — “‘
‘”Of cabbages — and kings — “‘ Harriet found herself laughing down at Ole Golly’s smiling face as they went on, alternating the lines.
‘”And why the sea is boiling hot — “‘ Ole Golly had the funniest look, halfway between laughter and tears.
Harriet shouted the last with glee: ‘”And whether pigs have wings”!’ She had always loved that line. It was her favorite.
Charlotte (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, 1990)
Charlotte’s story takes place aboard a ship called the Seahawk in 1832. She is the thirteen year-old, American daughter of a cotton goods manufacturer who attends a school in England. When her term ends, she must travel alone to Rhode Island (her home). Not only is she the only female passenger on board, she’s the only passenger and because they occupy opposite ends of the privilege spectrum, Charlotte and the crew are wary of one another. However, they slowly begin to develop a mutual sense of trust and appreciation. At the same time, Charlotte starts trusting the captain (a “cultured” man of good social standing) less and less. Eventually the captain’s violent nature emerges, and Charlotte’s only refuge is the camaraderie among the crew. She becomes a completely different person by tale’s end and, after realizing that her parents’ plan for her to live an “orderly life” isn’t what she wants, runs away from home to permanently join the crew of the Seahawk. I reread this book SO many times in middle school. It’s gritty, severe, even creepy at times — I’d never read anything like it. The scene where she discovers a stowaway in the ship’s hold still gives me goosebumps.
I looked at him again. He was gazing at me as if nothing had happened.
‘It was the storm that destroyed much of it,’ he said. ‘I have spent considerable time in setting the room to rights. Have I not done well? Order, Miss Doyle, order is all. Take away the light and…’ He leaned over and blew the candles out. ‘You see — it’s hard to notice the difference. Everything appears in order.’
I’ll highlight my final two in a future post. Go give your eyes a break 😉