Sunday, August 23, 2009

Childhood influences: Amazons and Swallows

I am starting a series called Childhood Influences, about the lifelong influence of the books or stories we read as children. This opening piece is a slightly different take on the subject from my friend Alice Tracy, whose recent experience of reading of a children's book brought back memories of what it felt like to read a book as a child--and a reminder of what values she took away from childhood readings.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog or thoughts on childhood influences, please e-mail it to me at

I first read Arthur Ransome’s Amazons and Swallows two years ago, many moons past childhood. Yet it has continued to resonate with me. The story is familiar in its outlines: a small group of siblings sail off together to camp out alone on a nearby island. An enemy is sighted: a lone man living on a sailboat with a parrot. Surely he’s a pirate! Then clear evidence of another boat encroaching on their island. The crew of the other boat is two sisters – tomboys -- of roughly the same age as the children on the island. A battle ensues but the children end friends. More adventures await, including a real battle with thieves, and a pleasant ending when the man with the parrot proves to be someone’s prickly but good-hearted uncle. All of the elements of a great story. If you haven’t read it, first, allow me to recommend that you do so. Second, let me say that I had the same feelings reading that book at around the half-century mark that I dare say I would have had when I was 12. And you may ask, “What were those feelings?”

I was captured almost immediately by the British nature of the book. Many of the children’s books that have stuck with me (although by no means all) have had that British nature. I mean by that term an independence of spirit, an isolation of the child’s world from that of the parent’s, and a pragmatic outlook that says, “Just get the job done.” I like to think that I am an independent, pragmatic individual, one always up for an adventure (no matter how small, and many of mine have been pretty small) so this British nature resonates with me.

Perhaps I am wrong to assign a “Britishness” to my reading experiences because many American books showcase those traits: Freddy the Pig, Caddie Woodlawn, The Saturdays, all come to mind. It’s just that the British have castles and hidden passageways to islands and sailing boats and all manner of adventurous settings to show off their adventurous spirit. Freddy and Caddie have the farm and the children in The Saturdays have New York City in the 1940s when adventure means finding a lost dog and having a mounted police officer bring you home. It’s not quite the same.

Another commonality though is the readiness of the authors to allow the girls to be as adventurous and as self-reliant as the boys. While there are some nods to femininity, all of the girls in these books seek out action and are largely unafraid of risk. (Of course, for the Freddy books and their almost all-animal cast you have to substitute female animals for female children. Still, in Freddy and the Perilous Adventure, Alice the duck – no relation – is the first to jump from the hot air balloon.) The crew of the Amazon is all female and it is one of the girls from the crew of the Swallow who thwarts the thieves – hiding in the boat in the dark by herself.

While when I was younger I would never have thought consciously about gender stereotyping, I longed for adventure as a child. I wanted to explore what life was like in far away worlds, but more importantly – I wanted to explore what life would be like on my own. If you can take that imaginative leap – and have the reading skills to do so – you can live in another world. I think that is why Amazons and Swallows made such an impression on me – it allowed me to immerse myself in a childhood adventure once again. I hope that I did learn from my childhood reading a lifelong desire for adventure, a willingness to take chances, and the imaginative ability to place myself in another world. I learned a great deal from the books I read as a child, but these may be the most important lessons.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Touring Donna Parker's "Summerfield"

On Friday, I met and lunched with Martin Levin, husband of the late Marcia Martin, author of the Donna Parker series. After lunch, Martin gave me a tour of Rye, New York, the setting of the fictional Summerfield, New Jersey, where Donna lives.

We saw Donna's home--incidentally the Levin's home from 1950-57-- a white frame Dutch colonial with black shutters on a shady street. Here Donna lived with her mother and father, Grace and Sam Parker and her little brother Jimmy. Amazingly, it looked just as I pictured Donna's house! Here too, Marcia Martin penned Donna's story, sitting in bed with a yellow legal pad balanced on her knees.

Martin also showed me the stone high school Donna attended, at least for one book, Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step. I also saw The Sweet Shop, the malt shop that is the backdrop for dates, lunches and conversations--as well as some rowdinesss. Called Poppy's, it's on the main drag in Rye and still boasts a long counter with red leather swivel seats.

Rye is on Long Island Sound, a lovely body of water naturally left out of descriptions of Summerfield, New Jersey. But as Martin Levin pointed out, little has changed in Rye since the 1950s. The town is clearly more upscale than it would have been in Donna's day, but it still has an idyllic, small town flavor, with many streets of modest frame homes, a big public library and a central shopping district.

It was a treat--a thrill--to actually meet Marcia's husband and hear stories about the connections between the Donna Parker series and Marcia's life. I had no idea how autobiographical the books were.