This summer, every Monday and Wednesday, I am hosting a series of guest posts here on my blog called Middle Grade Memories. In this series, authors, agents, librarians, and editors talk about their favorite childhood middle grade books. I’m beyond thrilled to share their middle grade memories with you.
Below is the twentieth post in the series, by Molly O’Neill, editor of children’s and young adult books at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Molly edits some outstanding books, including Veronica Roth‘s Divergent series, S. J. Kincaid‘s Insignia series, and Kathryn Fitzmaurice‘s books for middle grade readers.
Read on as Molly talks about one of her favorite childhood middle grade books, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
You know how in old time movies and books, they always talk about the Sears & Roebuck catalog (especially the Christmas-time Wish Book) like it was this sacred tome that contained everything one’s heart could possibly desire?
My version of that as a kid was the Scholastic Book Club fliers. Every month when we got them at school, I pored over my copy with an elaborate ranking system that used all of my neon highlighters, then practiced my persuasive speaking skills on my parents in order to convince them that I neeeeeeeeeddded new books, these selections in particular. (Looking back, I realize those were this editor’s very earliest versions of presentations to an Acquisitions Committee, or auction negotiations, or some such. Huh. Who knew?) Luckily, my parents believed in feeding me books, so books were often purchased from the fliers, if perhaps not in quite the vast quantities that I suggested.
For those unaware, Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s was a short-ish book—more than a novella, but not really a full novel—that was the precursor to FHB’s later classic, A Little Princess. I was most likely suckered in by the tagline on this paperback (yes, I had this very edition, complete with wicked-schoolmarm-who-looks-faintly-Disney-ish and evil classmates giggling in the background): “No one believed Sara was a little princess, except Sara herself.” As a young reader, I wasn’t so much princess-obsessed as I was orphan-obsessed. I honestly yearned to be an orphan, because orphans always seemed to have the best stories! Orphan or princess, though, I’m quite sure I was swayed by the tragic romance this copy’s tagline implies. After all, as the middle child and only girl sandwiched between two brothers, I was exceptionally talented at being misunderstood by the world. I burned through Sara Crewe, and I loved-loved-loved it. All of it: the orphans, boarding school, Victorian London, diamond mines, the Indian Gentleman, Becky the Scullery Maid, Miss Minchin…it was foreign and exotic and had a vivid setting entirely unlike my own Texan home, or any story I’d read to that point, and I adored it!
Being that this was pre-internet-era, my next step was to visit the library and see what else Frances Hodgson Burnett had written. Imagine my glee when I learned she had taken the story of Sara Crewe and added more, more, more—more descriptions of Victorian finery, more images of cold, damp British winters, and Lavinia and Jessie and Lottie and Ermengarde and Becky and Melchizedec the rat—to make a whole new book!
I read A Little Princess (and watched this version of the movie) countless times for several years straight. I embodied Sara, or tried to believe I did, anyway, which may or may not have led to my mother actually taking the book away from me for a period, because I was acting too much like a put-upon-princess-in-disguise, just like Sara, whenever I was asked to do something I thought would be considered drudgery, like doing the dishes, or cleaning my room. Behold, my philosophy as a nine-year-old:
“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it…I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one. It’s so easy that when you begin you can’t stop. You just go on and on doing it always.”
A Little Princess was my comfort read for many years, not only because of my enchantment with Sara’s idea of what it means to be a princess, but because of the glorious last third of the story, filled up as it is with touches of unexpected magic to counterbalance the terribly sad middle. Most of all, I think, I was, and still am, drawn to the story’s assurance that whenever things are at their bleakest, one shouldn’t lose hope, because that’s when Magic can come, and do its finest work. (Hmm. Could this be part of why I love stories with hints of magical realism today? I would not be at all surprised). And I also came back to the story over and over because I felt a deep kinship with Sara as a lover-of-books. Sara talked about stories like they were things that were really-truly alive, and I felt that way about them, too, but I knew even then that not everyone understood them in the same way.
But what’s most interesting to me today? I was an avid re-reader as a kid (still am!) And I have vivid recollections that I often read Sara Crewe, then followed it up with a reading of A Little Princess, mentally comparing the places where she’d filled in the gaps of story, and rejoicing in the new parts and how they made the story all the more wonderful. I wish there were a photograph of me, sprawled on my bed with both books, reading one against the other—because it would be evidence, of the very first work I ever did as an editor! A friend of mine once told me he thought I’d been editing my whole life, before I even knew that’s what I was doing, and this memory is proof of precisely that, I think.
My copy of A Little Princess has a foreword from Frances Hodgson Burnett herself, and it’s highlighted in (a now-very-dulled) hot pink by a long-ago me: “Between the lines of every story, there is another story, and that is one that can be guessed at by the people good at guessing.” I still love that thought, and these days, more than ever, I know it’s true. And lucky us—the writers and editors who get to peek between the lines of stories as “people good at guessing”; the ones who get to make the magic happen; the ones who know, like Sara Crewe that “Everything’s a story—You are a story—I am a story.”
Coming in March 2013, Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s third book for middle grade readers, is also the story of a girl whose life has been life is shaped by a special book—in her case, a volume of poetry written by her namesake, Emily Dickinson. But when the book goes missing, main character Emily Elizabeth Davis finds her own perception of herself unraveling . . . and then being rewritten in a marvelous new way.
To win, simply comment below and tell us about your experience with A Little Princess. Have you read and loved this book? How did it influence you? Have you watched any of the movie versions? (I only just recently watched the 1995 version directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and loved it!) What are your middle grade memories?
For an extra entry, tweet about this post and include the link to your tweet in your comment.
This giveaway begins now and ends Wednesday, August 8 at 11:59 a.m. EST. The winner will be announced shortly thereafter. This giveaway is U.S./Canada only.
EDITED 8/9: This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to the winner . . .
Thank you to all commenters, and thanks to all who read this post. Stay tuned for more Middle Grade Memories posts and giveaways throughout the summer!
Love Middle Grade Memories? Check back on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer for more in this series! You can view previous Middle Grade Memories posts below:
- author Marissa Burt and Where the Red Fern Grows
- author Sarvenaz Tash and The Witches
- author Jay Kristoff and The Hobbit
- author Adam-Troy Castro and Dr. Dolittle
- author Greg Leitich Smith and The Enormous Egg
- librarian Rita Meade and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- author Cristin Terrill and The Baby-Sitters Club
- author Phoebe North and A Swiftly Tilting Planet
- editor Jordan Hamessley and The Egypt Game
- agent Suzie Townsend and The Westing Game
- author Lauren Billings and Howl’s Moving Castle
- editor Zareen Jaffery and The Secret Garden
- author Nikki Loftin and Pippi Longstocking
- author Kody Keplinger and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
- author Stephanie Burgis and A Wrinkle in Time
- author Gretchen McNeil and books by John Bellairs
- author Shannon Messenger and the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary
- author Myra McEntire and The Borrowers
- author Alison Cherry and Anne of Green Gables