A recent discussion about winter sports books brought this comment from Laurie of the Six Boxes of Books blog :
For Olympics this week, I re-read White Boots (aka Skating Shoes) by Noel Streatfeild. Great read! A sickly girl (not a character you see much in novels these days, is it?) starts skating to exercise and regain her good health during a London winter.
I recently received a copy of SKATING SHOES, just re-issued in paperback by Yearling, but haven't yet read it. I should probably give it a go before the Olympic flame in Vancouver is doused this weekend.
In the meantime, I've been thinking about Laurie's comments on sick kids in literature.
It's true, in the old days children's books were filled with sickly kids, frail kids, kids who were homebound, or sent away to the country for rest cures.
Colin in THE SECRET GARDEN and Katy in WHAT KATY DID are bedridden.
HEIDI's Clara and the title character in POLLYANNA can't walk.
Tiny Tim: tiny crutch.
Then of course there's Beth in LITTLE WOMEN. She really went overboard with the sick-kid thing.
And it's not as if sickly children disappeared from books at the end of the Victorian era. Glancing at my shelf of Newbery winners and Honor Books, I'm reminded of Robin in Marguerite DeAngeli's THE DOOR IN THE WALL, who loses his ability to walk.
Julie in Irene Hunt's UP A ROAD SLOWLY, starts a new school "still weak from the same illness that had stricken my mother."
Cousin Kate ends up on her uncle's farm in THE GOOD MASTER because she's recently had the measles and remains "delicate."
The whole plot of MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS ON NIMH hinges on a sick kid...well, a sick mouse.
Come to think of it, Mrs. Frisby's creator, Robert C. O'Brien, was once a pretty frail kid himself.
In fact, once I began researching the topic, I discovered that quite a few children's authors grew up fainting, sniffling, sneezing, barfing, and generally staying off school for weeks or months at a time.
Robert Louis Stevenson is probably the poster child for invalid authors. He once described himself as "a mere complication of cough and bones." Between coughing and bone-rattling, though, he produced TREASURE ISLAND and A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES, so I guess we can't judge him too harshly.
Among twentieth century authors, Arnold Lobel missed a year of school due to ill health.
Ed Young started school a year late for the same reason.
Newbery Honor writer Sorche Nic Leodhas has them both beat, having spent "several years" studying at home due to childhood sickness.
As a child, CAPS FOR SALE creator Esphyr Slobodkina was "confined to bed for lengthy periods."
Meindert DeJong had pneumonia multiple times and was once so ill that his entire Dutch village prayed for his recovery.
Karen Hesse remembers her own days as a sick kid with these words: "Thin and pasty, I looked like I'd drifted in from another world and never quite belonged in this one."
Having grown up in a "You're not that sick. Get dressed for school" kind of family, I'm tempted to call the above authors and illustratos a bunch of slackers and malingerers.
...But then I ask myself if they ever would have become the creators we now admire if they hadn't had that childhood "down-time" to dream, to imagine, and to get an early start on their craft.
In Anita Silvey's CHILDREN'S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, Maurice Sendak recalls, "I was a sickly child and spent a lot of time looking out the window. There was a little girl across the street named Rosie, and I must have forty sketchpads filled with Rosie pictures and Rosie stories."
Imagine. If Maurice Sendak had been a robust, healhy kid, we might not have REALLY ROSIE today.
The aforementioned Esphyr Slobodkina utilized her bedridden days cutting designs in paper.
As a young adult, Will James spent his recuperation period after an accident painting pictures of horses and selling them to magazines; Mary Stolz wrote her first young-adult novel while recovering from an illness.
Finally, Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo gives this explanation on how being a sick kid helped her become a writer:
Now, looking back, I can see all that illness for what it was: a gift that shaped me and made me what I am. I was alone a lot. I learned to rely on my imagination for entertainment. Because I was always on the lookout for the next needle, the next tongue depressor, I learned to watch and listen and gauge the behavior of those around me. I became an imaginative observer.
When I look back on childhood, I remember one moment with great clarity. I was three years old and in the hospital with pneumonia, and my father came to visit me. He arrived in a black overcoat that smelled of the cold outdoors, and he brought me a gift. It was a little, red net bag. Inside it there was a wooden village: wooden church, house, chicken, tree, farmer. It was as if he had flung the net bag out into the bright world and captured the essential elements and shrunk them down and brought them to me.
He opened the bag and said, "Hold out your hands." I held out my hands. "No," he said, "like this. Like you are going to drink from them." I did as he said, and he poured the wooden figures, piece by piece, into my waiting hands. Then he told me a story about the chicken and the farmer and the house and the church. Something opened up inside me. There was the weight of the wooden figures in my hands, the smell of my father's overcoat, the whole great world hiding, waiting in the purple dusk outside my hospital room. And there was the story--the story.
I think of that moment often. It was another gift of my illness. When I write, I sometimes stop and cup my hands, as if I am drinking water. I try, I want desperately to capture the world, to hold it for a moment in my hands.
Did being a "sick kid" make Ms. DiCamillo into a writer? Who knows? But it's probably safe to say that, if Ms. DiCamillo hadn't spent so much of her childhood exploring her imagination, she might never have written about Winn-Dixie or Edward Tulane or a mouse named Despereaux.
If she'd had my "You're-not-that-sick. Get-dressed-for-school" parents, she might still be a writer...but she'd probably be writing mostly school stories.