Thursday, February 25, 2010

Valid Invalids

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.


Jan von Harz said...

Interesting tidbits from a short comment about Skating Shoes.

When I started reading I thought there might be more about sick characters in literature, but I did enjoy the information about all the authors who were sickly and the point you made about it.

Charlotte said...

Another for your sickly list--Rosemary Sutcliff, best writer of historical fiction for kids ever.

I love Skating Shoes, btw!

Unknown said...

I too thought this was going to be about sickly kids in literature and I was going to chime in with Pollyanna, but I love the author angle. I sure hope that being sickly is not a pre-requisite to being a great author though. Just an interesting way to find the writing within.

Anthony said...

Yes, Rosemary Sutcliff, who had Stills disease very young. She was my godmother and I grew up knowing her well, when I was young frequently pushing her wheelchair into bushes and flower beds, usually by mistake.... She would have described herself as a sickly child perhaps but resisted being defined by such labels.

Her autobiography Blue Remembered Hills is sharp and moving. (Venus) She did not think being sickly was a pre-requisite for being a great author, but she did think that she had been mightily influenced by not going to school until her teens, and not being able to read until about age ten. Her mother read her Greek and British myths and legends and all manner of books and stories. She was herself a wonderful story-teller above all else. may interest you, whoever you are if you read this blog and the interesting post about about 'sickly' authors, and if you like Rosemary's work?

jess said...

I always think of Understood Betsy (Dorothy Canfield) when I think of kids sent away to the country to get healthy. Also, more memorably for me, Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins with the bread pills and trips to the mountains.

Anonymous said...

David Small had cancer when he was a teenager.

CLM said...

Charlotte beat me to Rosemary Sutcliff but a 19th century sickly author is Anna Sewell. She was lame throughout her teens and relied on horse-drawn carriages - hence, her concern for horses.

Another great sickly character is Marianne in Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams, one of my favorites. I was so excited as an adult to obtain a copy of the sequel from a kind friend in London.

I will enjoy checking out that Sutcliff link. Thank you, Anthony.

Genevieve said...

Great post!
Another sickly character is David Lurie in Chaim Potok's "In The Beginning." On the way home from the hospital after David's birth, his mother trips on the steps to their apartment and falls, with the baby in her arms, and his face hits the sidewalk. Everyone thinks he's fine, but his septum became deviated and he had spells of illness all throughout childhood that are important to the story.

LaurieA-B said...

"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." Yes, and do we still see this in books today? Thinking about real children, not characters, I have never heard an actual child today described as frail, or delicate. I wonder if this was true of actual children in the past, or mainly fictional ones. I haven't thought of any contemporary books in which a character is sent to the country to regain their health. Though a novel about a child going to live with a family through the Fresh Air Fund has definite possibilities... if this hasn't been written yet, someone should write it.