Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

story and character formation, selfhood and book, self-image and books, girls and books,

Building a self. (andycarter’s flickr photostream)

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids aren’t fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Children are drawn to stories that resonate with the same challenges they’re facing. Authors know kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, establishing one’s own values, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years.

As I look back I realize two books I read over and over still echo in my life today. One of my favorites was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. It’s the story of a little girl who is taken to live in the mountains with her grumpy but kind grandfather. She loves to spend her days outdoors on the hillsides, playing with the goats, talking to Peter the goatherd and his blind grandmother, and eating simple wholesome foods like cheese made from goat’s milk. When Heidi is taken away to live in the city, a companion to her sickly cousin Clara, she’s deeply homesick. Although she happily learns to read, hoping she can go home to read to the blind grandmother, each day away from her beloved mountains haunts her. She convinces her uncle to let Clara come back with her for a summer visit. There they spend days outdoors, playing with the goats, eating her grandfather’s hearty food, and laughing. Her cousin recovers her health and Heidi is free to stay in the place she loves.

My other favorite book was so pivotal I’ve called it the book that saved me.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is about a lonely girl named Mary who lives on the moors of England. She befriends a boy, Dickon, who can speak to animals. She also insists on becoming acquainted with an invalid named Colin. Mary doesn’t want dolls or toys. She wants the joy of helping a hidden garden come alive. She wants to remain free of lessons so she can learn Dickon’s wisdom. She wants to understand the mystery that makes flowers grow, helping Colin find that strength in himself.

Both books are about a certain kind of justice, one that permits self-determination and self-definition. Both are about the value of staying rooted and feeling nourished by a sense of place. Both are about the restorative power of nature. I feel those elements in my life strongly. Yet I see even more of these books in my choices. My children have grown up without schooling, as Heidi and Mary did. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, insist on wholesome food, and speak to all the animals on our little farm (though I’m still waiting for birds to alight on my arm as they did on Dickon’s). I have Heidi’s passion for reading and Mary’s passion for watching things grow. And I hope I have what both characters had in abundance, the determination to speak up for what they believed was right.

What books made you who you are today?

Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life?

And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?

22 thoughts on “Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

  1. Danny and the Dinosaur! Oh how I loved that book. Flutterby, and all the Serendipity books. Then at 9 I read Erma Bombeck’s “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries What am I Doing in the Pits” and loved books with no pictures!
    In the midst of watching Star Trek and science shows with Leonard Nimoy narrating, I imagined myself flying the galaxy and writing the Universes’ story. In 7th grade I started writing and never looked back.


  2. Heidi was a big one for me too. Also Little Princess. The Narnia series was so important to me that I stole it from my church! I have since replaced it in the form of cash donations. I was drawn to books that reflected my suffering and deprivation. But it wasn’t until I found Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series, as an adult, that I felt I found a children’s series that reflected my path to recovery. It’s actually quite Jungian, looking at the shadow in The Wizard of Earthsea, and reflecting a path to healing in each of the books following. “Earthsea is a fictional realm originally created by Ursula K. Le Guin for her short story “The Word of Unbinding”, published in 1964. Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. All are set in the world of Earthsea, as are seven short stories by Le Guin, two of which are not collected in any of these books.” From Wikipedia

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  3. Little Women was the one I read ever year for maybe ten years. I loved Jo. I wanted to write, like her, but wasn’t good at it in my twenties. It took me a long time to become a better writer. I loved Jo’s family – loving, but not much like her.


  4. I came to The Secret Garden and Heidi through raising my daughters – love them both – particularly The Secret Garden – which is an incredibly creative affirmation of the old traditions of wic (to be alive) or wicca that had been repressed by the Inquisition and which were illegal in Great Britain unit the late 1950’s. These are the traditions of the wise women of the earth represented safely through a country boy in the garden of an aristocrats estate – beautifully done.

    Fav’s from my own childhood were My Friend Flicka and The Green Grass of Wyoming, The Once and Future King by EB White, and The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien


  5. My first chapter book at age 5 was “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, a gift from my mom because the heroine and I had the same first name!
    I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that Anne (of Green Gables series) is fictional. Her history is also my history because those pictures I created in my head are meshed with places I really was. I feel like she was one of my ancestors. The original volumes that once were my grandma’s line my own daughter’s bookshelves.


  6. “Please, sir, may I have a bit of earth to plant a garden?” I love “The Secret Garden” and “Heidi”. I cried the first time that I read “Heidi”. I was nine. “Harriet the Spy” and “Nancy Drew” were favorites, and “The Hundred Dresses”. Did anyone read “The Dark is Rising” series? I read those with my children.


  7. I also loved the Earthsea series. And The Dark is Rising series. And the Chronicles of Narnia. The Changeling. Bridge to Terabithia. The Little House on the Prairie series, Anne of Green Gables… I want to re-read them all, now, after reading this.
    I didn’t share my inner growth through reading with any adults at all, as a child. Nobody asked, and I didn’t volunteer. I just read on and on.


  8. The Laura Ingalls books I read over & over. I remember reading & enjoying the Dark is Rising, but don’t remember them very well. Island of the Blue Dolphins was huge. I think living through these books, being these young women who became capable of doing and making and finding what they needed, made that aspect stronger in me. I’ve discovered Earthsea as an adult, too–wonder what it would have been like to read them as a kid?


  9. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books, especially the parts where Laura helped Mary to “see” by describing things in vivid details, and where during the Long Winter, she helped her father twist the hay into bunches for burning in the stove. Knowing that Laura was a real person was inspiring, and made me want to be strong like her.

    Charlotte’s Web was another favorite; also the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wind in the Willows, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and of course The Secret Garden. I never mentioned to my parents how the books influenced me (hadn’t thought much about it until I read your article) but they certainly knew that we loved to read and encouraged us by providing trips to the library and the bookstore, and providing a home with no television.


  10. I didn’t read all the comments above so hopefully I am not repeating something. I wanted to say I feel you wrote about something really big. I read two books, one called the Sacred Contracts and it talks about archetypes. According to the author, Carolline Myss we all have archetypes that we are drawn to. We can find these archetypes in the stories we read.

    Another book is a memoir writing book called Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. She mentions a little parlour game of sorts that your favourite childhood stories can give you some insights into who you are.

    I really love this post! My three year old is obsessed with princess movies. I have experimented with these kinds of stories. Of course their are princess stories where the princess is bad, rebellious, tom boy-ish or very lady like and goes to balls or needs to be rescued. The likes the ones where the princess is lady-like, strong, and goes on an adventure. She also seems to be drawn to shows where the princess is separated from her king and queen.

    Me, I am an Anne of Green Gables girl all the way.

    Thank you so much for your post! It brought out the enthusiasm in me:)


    • Marlene, you’ve really illuminated this idea much more clearly. I hadn’t thought about this in terms of archetypes but you’re so right.

      I’ve never heard of Tristine Rainer, but her book sounds fascinating.

      thank you!


  11. This is a great idea! (found your blog via Aussie Homeschool on FB).

    Oooh, so many to choose from though!! The Little House on the Prairie series were my favourite, and read so many times I lost count! It was fascinating to learn about life in the USA at that time, and I appreciated Laura’s spirit and tenacity. Milly Molly Mandy was another favourite, who inspired me with her imagination and family. I also relished Little Women, Poppy Trelore, Hellen Keller, Hans Christian Anderson, Jungle Doctor, and many many more.
    I read autobiographies and biographies from an early age, and Doughlas Bader and Janine Shepherd have always been inspirational, especially as they were/are pilots.


  12. The story that held magic, emotion, and reflection for me was Black Beauty. I read and reread that story so many times, I could recite the first paragraph. It instilled in me a sense of looking at animals with a sense of fairness and compassion. Many years later, I was given a pony while I was in a foster home. The insights I learned from Black Beauty caused me to have a fantastic relationship with that darling little stallion pony. I was told that ponies kick, bite and are unpredictable creatures that needed to be “controlled” and “made” to behave. From Black Beauty, I constantly tried to see from my pony, Bubbles, viewpoint. What was wonderful, is that he responded very unlike I was told. He never bucked me off, never bit me, never kicked me. When we went into the woods, I could let the rains down on his neck, get off, and he would follow me.
    From this story, I learned how to transform this attitude to people, also. Having been in foster homes since the age of five, it would have been too easy to have turned to anger and meanness as I felt to use for survival. Although, in my teenage years, I was an angry child, I still couldn’t react to my anger in meanness long, so I would revert to withdrawal. Horses, and my understanding from Anne Sewell changed by life. I now have three horses and the trainer I look to for learning horsemanship is Pat and LInda Parelli. Black Beauty would have loved them!
    I hope to write stories for young people similar to Black Beauty and inspire compassion and understanding for our animals that have been put into our care.


  13. Oh Lord! Too many to list – I don’t want to take over the blog! One that still remains with me and which I still read from time to time is Kipling’s Kim, for the beauty of the descriptions of India and its people. We didn’t have TV till I was 14, so my interior life was fully formed by the time I was exposed to the idiot box. Nothing I saw on the small screen could ever live up to what my imagination created, and that’s still so today. I suppose if I had to say what books formed me, I would reply “all of them”.


    • I think you’re probably right in “all of them.” I read so much as a kid and still escape that way today that I can’t remember most of them. Perhaps everything we’ve read is part of us in ways we can’t imagine.


  14. Reading through people comments it is amazing how many people have loved the same books that I loved. I have read all of the books listed below countless times.

    Ramona Series
    Little House Series
    “The Secret Garden” and also “A Little Princess”
    Everything by Madeline L’Engle “A Ring of Endless Light was my favorite”.


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