My favorite childhood books were all about who I wanted to be at the time, and my fondness for them can be measured by tattered spines and stained pages. My all-time favorite was my very first book, the teeny tiny Pierre – a cautionary tale by Maurice Sendak. But I discuss this one in my PS pages of Town House, so I’ll skip ahead. In order of raggednessand disrepair…
Hop on Pop by Dr. Suess. I still have this one, but it’s hanging on by a shred. The spine is nothing but a scrap and most of Pop’s illustrations have his eyes X-ed out. I wasn’t much of an artist at four, but I clearly believed Pop to be in grave need of embellishment. My childhood name, Monie, is scrawled on the inside front cover. (I’ll pause here to explain that when I was born, they named me Patricia with the intent of nicknaming me Tish, then took me home and called me Monie for 8 years. Which might remove some of the mystery about why I had to become every character I read about–I had no idea who I was.) Anyway, in this book I like to think I was identifying with one of the wee hoppers, rather than the doltish-looking and overfed Pop.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. This one didn’t survive my childhood. There is a point, apparently, where paper simply gives up. Each time I read this one, I WAS Anne Shirley. I pulled cows out of neighbor’s gardens, ogled Gilbert Blythe, giggled with Diana Barry, and despised that my red hair dictated that I couldn’t wear red. Or maybe it was pink. Whatever. I even had a powder blue winter hat with thick braids for ties and loved the way Anne’s braids swished against my cheeks when I tossed my head. I still carry with me a love for the name Anne, but only when spelled with an e.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This book tore me up inside because I wanted to both be Beauty and possess him. I wanted a thick, flowing mane, gleaming black coat, and polished hooves that clattered on the pavement. I loved long car rides, only because I’d spend every minute staring out the window pretending I was Beauty, galloping across the fields, sailing over wooden fences and fallen trees.
At the same time I wanted Beauty for my very own. Daily, I dreamed of a stone barn with a mossy roof and uneven floors, with Beauty’s dark face poking out of a stall full of thick straw. The barn would be humid from his sweet breath and would smell of hay and clean leather—no better smell on earth, I assure you.
Eventually a Black Beauty series came on TV. I never cared for the show, but glued myself to the TV to watch the opening and closing credits, which showed Beauty galloping along a grassy ridge to flowing-mane type music. This nearly killed me, I loved that horse so much. I actually cried watching it, week after week. I’m still a rider and still very big on the whole female equine crush thing.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London. My love for this book was unrequited because the book didn’t love me back. I needed to read this book because it had a wolf on the front and was about a dog and I wanted to be a dog, but I was far too young to understand it. I probably tried for the first time at five. Then six. Seven. Each time I failed. It became a literary yardstick for me – every year I tried and failed. There’s no Hollywood ending for this book and me. By the time I was old enough to understand it, I’d moved on to Trixie Belden and Donna Parker.
There were many other books I loved as a child, and many other heroines I became–however fleetingly. I hadn’t thought of it before, but, in a way, I still do this while reading. But only in books I get really lost in. This year alone, I’ve been a prep school freshman, a desperate twin, an emotionally battered drag queen, a mother who murdered for her son, a gay man-child living in Thatcher’s London, the son of a lunatic, an autistic teen, an adulterous suburban mother, and a 93-year-old ex-circus vet.
And I get to call it work.