When I was five years old, soon after I started kindergarten, I got rheumatic fever. The disease left me weak and crippled. I was unable to walk for a year. I could not attend school and because rheumatic fever is contagious, I was not allowed to be with other children. The home teacher sent to me wore a mask. All day, I stayed home with my mother without television or playmates.
I was happy.
I never thought of myself as deprived because I was learning to read. I spent blissful days decoding simple stories and soon as if by magic, I could enter myriad worlds. Before I fell ill, my parents had taken me to see the marvelous 1952 movie version of Heidi, filmed in Switzerland. The movie, though black and white showed breathtaking images of the snow-capped Alps, glacial lakes and wildflower meadows. Children who went to the movie were given a paperback book with the abridged story of Heidi enhanced with photos from the film. This was my most favorite book, and before I could read it myself, I asked my mother to read the story to me over and over again.
We all know that Heidi is the story of a little girl who lives happily and healthily in the Alps with her beloved grandfather. During the day, Heidi is free to explore the breathtaking landscape with her friend, the little goatherd, Peter. She skipped over river rocks, picked armfuls of wildflowers and stopped with Peter to picnic on a wholesome lunch of bread with a hunk of farm cheese washed down with milk― still warm from the goats.
Of course, anyone who has read Heidi knows that her idyllic life was not to last. Heidi was soon shipped off to Frankfurt to be a companion to the shy, crippled Clara. Yet all works out fine for ultimately Heidi returns to the Alps with Clara and in one of the final scenes of the book, Heidi’s encouragement enables Clara to walk.
The story of Heidi remained so powerful within me that as a young adult I chose to live for a while in a high Alpine farming village in Switzerland where I drank milk fresh from the cow, picked wildflowers in the meadows, and ate the great hunks from the giant wheels of cheese my neighbors made each spring.
Now a children’s book author myself, I understand the true magic of my childish passion for this book. It is this: whenever I heard or read the story I was Heidi, I completely identified with her and felt in some way, I was her or maybe she was me. This is the potent psychological transference of literature—and it occurs not only with children. It is astonishing that I never once identified with Clara, though, like her, I was shy and could not walk. In some mysterious way, the book allowed me to tell myself that I was healthy and robust. As a young child, Heidi was my avatar, and only decades later as an adult did I look back and realize that I was Clara.
This transference is my personal example of the real power of a children’s book. Yes, a book can mirror a child’s own life but perhaps more importantly, can provide a vision for children of who they can be and what they can do. And all of this can be done without explicitly “telling” them.
Perhaps this power is why Heidi has ranked with the Bible and Shakespeare as one of the world’s most widely read books. It is certainly why the bold, independent character of Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women remains, after more than a hundred and fifty years, the most important role model in children’s literature. As Megan Lynn Isaac, professor of Children’s Literature at Youngstown University, wrote,
“Jo made professional writing imaginable for generations of women. Writers as diverse as Maxine Hong Kingston, Margaret Atwood, and J.K. Rowling have noted the influence of Jo March on their artistic development.”
As a children’s book writing instructor, I encourage my students to think of their characters to overcome odds so as to become agents of their own destiny. In my own writing, I attempt to create characters who at some point, envision themselves in a daring, new way that may surprise not only others but themselves. In Song of Light, my biography of the WWII poet, Hannah Szenes, I portrayed a real-life heroine, an upper middle class Hungarian schoolgirl who had led a cosseted life but who joined the British Air Force as a paratrooper with a vision to rescue the Jews of Hungary.
And in my picture book, The Marvelous Maze, published this year by Lawley Publishing, the princess who is authentic, strong, and wise is the one who wins the heart of the prince.
So, as we see, children will discover role models through the powerful influence of a book they love.