Notes from Candice Ransom

Why I (Still) Write for Children, Part II

culpeper trailer web

I became a writer because of one book.  I was home sick from school one day in fourth grade.  Mama let me build a reading cave in the living room, a bedspread draped over the card table, furnished with a quilt and my bed pillow.  Bored, I investigated the bookcase behind the red glider rocker. It contained Doubleday Book Club titles, such as Unto These Hills and the intriguing-sounding (but actually dull) Panther’s Moon.

Wedged between the grown-up books was a book my older sister had left behind: Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor.  I carried it into my reading cave as Candice Farris, nine-year-old-with-a-cold.  When I came out, I was Candice Farris, future-writer-of-books.  I’d already been writing stories a few years, and reading everything I could get my hands on.  This book made me a writer.

Why this particular book? For one thing, the characters are regular kids.  Trixie is a thirteen-year-old girl who loves horses and hates chores and most school work.  But she isn’t dumb.  She figures out mysteries that stump grown-ups.

In Mysterious Visitor, I learned about dominant and recessive genes.  Trixie: “If we knew that Mrs. Lynch’s parents both had blue eyes we’d know for sure that Uncle Monty was an impostor.  It’s the Mendelian theory of heredity.”  Brian, her brother: “Blue is recessive, so blue-eyed parents can’t have a brown-eyed child.”

This tidbit sent me flying to the bathroom mirror.  My mother’s eyes were chocolate brown.  My father’s were blue.  Mine weren’t either but a light goldy brown.  What did that mean?  Was there an impostor in my family?

I loved the fact Trixie lives in the country in a modest house (though she has a rich best friend):  “The Manor House . . . formed the western boundary of the Beldens’ Crabapple Farm, which nestled down in a hollow.  Honey’s home was luxurious, but Trixie preferred the little white frame house where she lived with her three brothers and their parents.”

trixie resized

Like many girls, I identified with Trixie; I wanted to be Trixie.  The closest thing was to write stories like that.  Trixie had adventures, sometimes even dangerous ones, but she always went home to Crabapple Farm.

Just as I once spent my days in my tree house, in the woods, or down at the creek, I always returned home to the familiar yellow light spilling from the kitchen window, the smell of fried chicken and biscuits.

As explained in The Scientist in the Crib, young children “are torn between the safety of a grown-up embrace and the irresistible drive to explore.  A toddler in the park seems attached to his mother by an invisible bungee cord:  he ventures out to explore and then, in sudden panic, races back to the safe haven, only to venture forth again some few minutes later.  Even as grown-ups, it seems a part of the human condition to be perpetually torn between home and away.

Adventure—going away—is one reason I still write for children.  Home is the second reason.  Home, the real place we come back to after a day of adventure.  And home the idea, the part that lives inside us no matter our actual address.  Because I didn’t always have a home.  The nine-year-old me remembered that and was figuring out a way to protect the four-year-old me.

In TalkTalk, E.L. Konigsburg states:  “When a person writes he returns home—to childhood—and in that sense, home is a time as well as a place.  It is often a small, dark place where we were often frightened.  Childhood as home was not always comfortable, and it is often not fun to return to, but it is a place we all carry around inside of us, and it must be looked into and occasionally aired out.  It is the place where we were the most raw, most unvarnished, most uncluttered with the packaging of civilization.

Home is the single theme that ties almost all of my books together.  Having a home, not having a home, leaving home . . . wanting to go back home.  Lately, the kids I write about don’t live in Starbucks-studded suburbs.  I’m more drawn to kids who live in gritty reality.  Trailers, motels, homeless shelters, “piled-in” with relatives (as I was).  Trips to Family Dollar with Meemaw, Sunday and Wednesday church, working in the garden.

Last night, I half-woke with the sense that I was someone else.  No, not someone else, but my child-self.  For brief seconds, I was in touch with her again.  Unsettled feelings whirled about her.  Emotions churned, growing Wonderland-like bigger or smaller.  How did I manage those all thoughts and fears when I was nine?

The problems of grown-ups, E.L. Konigsburg believes, are definite, while children deal with “vague problems . . . fears and uncertainties.”  The hardest job we have as writers for children is “to make concrete words out of those vague, pervading anxieties.”

As a kid, I escaped vague and not-so-vague anxieties through books like Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor.  Trixie had problems, too, but they were neatly contained within cardboard covers.  When the mystery was solved, she went home to Crabapple Farm.  I read for that feeling of home-away-home satisfaction.

Away and home.  There and Back Again.  Those are the main reasons I still write for children.  It’s why I leave the clutter of civilization and return to my childhood, brave that storm of emotions, and, if I’m very lucky, stumble upon the rare joy of learning something new about the world.

Whether it’s 2015 or 1961, kids want to be Trixie Belden or Bilbo Baggins.  They will always need to break away, explore, get in trouble, figure things out for themselves.  And they will always need to go home again, to the single room, the trailer, the aunt’s basement, the Manor House on the hill, the little white frame house nestled in a hollow.

20 thoughts on “Why I (Still) Write for Children, Part II”

    • I still dream about the house I lived in as a kid, even though it’s been torn down. We never break from that original home. All the houses you lived in will come with you to that new house you are building. All those old homes will help make the new house a home.

      • My childhood home, built by my parents in 1958, is still there and now that I am back in my home town, I can drive by anytime! My sister and I asked the current owner if we could look around and some of the walls are still the same color!

        • Oh, you’re so lucky! Back in your home town, your old house still there! My area changed so much, I had to leave, go someplace where I had no memories, nothing invested.

          Our house was built in 1957, a brick ranch practically in the woods. The day we closed the house, after my mother died, I never went back. In nearly 30 years, I haven’t even driven down the highway our house was on. And yet in this house, I’ve done things that echo that old house–painted my kitchen the same apple green of my mother’s kitchen cabinets, painted our bedroom the same salmon pink of my sister’s bedroom . . .

    • I feel sorry for this generation, I really do. They have everything (a lot of them) and yet they are missing so much. I hope books get them to go out, make them adventurous in a way video games can’t.

  1. I loved this post! Helped me figure out that I’m always trying to go home to my grandmother’s house on the farm. Where I could hear myself. And be myself. And so we write on…

    • You can recapture that farm in many books, different pieces of it. And each time you work on a project that features your grandmother’s farm in some way, you can go home (Thomas Wolfe wasn’t *entirely* right).

  2. Oh, Trixie was one of my first bookish loves as well. I love sharing her with my daughter. There’s just something about her! So real and flawed and smart and always willing to fix her own mistakes.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!!

    • I hope your daughter reads all the Trixie books and loves them as much as we do! The first six are the best, the ones written by the series creator, Julie Campbell. I actually have a Trixie Belden *autographed* by her, not to me, but still!

    • Hi Frieda:

      You’re free to scroll through some old posts. And sign up with that RSS feed thingie. Warning: I tend to whine . . . but I love creating essays, and I love illustrating them with my own photos. As a photographer friend said, our blogs are like publishing a little magazine.

    • Sarah, I’m still adding to my collection. Just discovered the first three titles were issued in a dust jacket with different endpapers! Off to search eBay!

  3. In your words of self-discovery, I find myself. I did read a few Trixie mysteries and most of the Nancy Drew series, but it was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse that made the significant impression on me. I didn’t long for home, but I did long to help people. And though “to help people” is vague and often self-serving, even as little girl, what I craved was compassion. Through giving, most of my hurts have been healed. The best books open our hearts and make us vulnerable to the changes that grow us. Thank goodness for writers like you who help to bring out the best in children.

  4. I wanted Gandalf to be my grandfather, I loved those books so much! Not just for the fireworks he brought but his wisdom . . . he symbolized Away and Home. I think he wanted to be home, somewhere, but was always called away.

  5. Wow, just WOW, to every word of that! So, so good!
    Adventure…home…you’re so right. That IS the gist of the best children’s books. I never thought about it that way.
    I wanted to leave home for college, but started dating a guy who begged me to stay near home and attend a different college. And so, because I realized it was love, real love, I did. Now, 32 years later, we’ve lived in 23 homes and eight states…so, I did leave home, have my adventures, even move back to my hometown eight years, then away again. I don’t fit there anymore, yet I realize everything I am, good and bad, is because of where I grew up–and I need to dig down into all those layers of the Ozarks inside every cell and harvest out the “home.”
    I’m so glad you were sick that day and read that Trixie book. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Candice-the-author!

    • Lorri, You’ve lived far more places than I have (never left Virginia) and have so many experiences and perspectives to bring back to those Ozark roots that are still buried deep. Everyone, not just kids, want the safety of home. It’s where we work best, not just live. Go back, Lorri, let yourself go back home!

      As for the sick-day, I suspect I would have become a writer anyway since I did nothing the livelong day but read. But the Trixie books made me realize if I wanted more stories like those, I’d have to write them myself!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.