From Reader to Writer, Teaching Writing Through Classic Children’s Books by Sarah Ellis provides a fascinating glimpse into the childhood experiences and reading choices of seventeen well known children’s writers past and present. Ellis describes a childhood incident from each author’s life and then shows how that author might have been influenced by the books he or she loved as a child. She suggests short writing exercises and longer-term projects for children to tackle after reading one of the author’s books. For further reading, she also gives annotated reading lists of books by other authors in the same spirit or genre.
In the first chapter we learn that Robert Louis Stevenson’s fragile health as a child often confined him to the house or even to bed, while his fertile imagination carried him far afield. “He could make a whole world out of anything—a toy theater, lead soldiers, Bible stories, tales his nanny told him, his own terrifying nightmares.” With his cousin Bob, Stevenson constructed imaginary kingdoms called Nosingtonia and Encylopedia. Not surprisingly, his favorite book was The Coral Island, a castaway story inspired by Robinson Crusoe.
Years later and all grown up, Stevenson was vacationing in a small cottage with his wife and stepchildren. When bad weather confined everyone to the house, nerves began to fray. Stevenson produced some watercolor paints and suggested that his stepson draw a map of an island. To keep the child company, Stevenson made a map, too. This exercise so kindled his imagination that it became the springboard for a fifteen-day writing marathon producing the first fifteen chapters of
Ellis gives detailed suggestions for having students envision and describe their own imagined island. For children not ready to tackle
Treasure Island, or for additional reading, there is a list of other books set on an island, including Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Goats, Jacob Have I Loved, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Baby.
Chapters follow on other writers such as P.L. Travers, C.S. Lewis, Katherine Paterson, Susan Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, and L.M. Montgomery. Many of these were authors I was drawn to as a child and who clearly influenced my own work. My love of writing in verse was nurtured by a well thumbed copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by the Provensens, a favorite from which my mom often read to me at bedtime. The mystery and magic of (the pre-Disney) Mary Poppins helped nurture a love of fairy tales that led me to write The Rainbabies, Moishe’s Miracle, Little Oh and Prince Nautilus. Jo March and Anne Shirley, Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery respectively gave me two imaginative, high spirited, resourceful girls I could admire, identify with, and draw inspiration from.
Sarah Ellis writes in the introduction to From Reader to Writer, “(This) group of classic children’s writers that I have come to know through their essays, journals, letters, memoirs and autobiographies…are excellent company, and they can provide for children a pageant of variety—variety of motivations, method and personality.” Good jumping off points for any developing writer!