I was a good reader in first grade, and read lots of picture books, fairy tales and the whole Thornton W. Burgess series about Old Mother West Wind, Reddy Fox, Poor Mrs. Quack and the others.
But then in the second grade, I took “Ellen Tebbits” by Beverly Cleary out of the library, and found it the most shocking, amazing book in the world. It wasn’t about a princess or an animal, it was about an ordinary girl. And it didn’t just tell you what Ellen did, it told you what she thought, and how she felt! And Ellen’s thoughts and feelings were full of contradictions, and her life was full of misunderstandings, and things that didn’t always quite work out the way she thought they would. Confusion, sadness, regret, joy, it’s all in there.
Ellen Tebbits is probably best known for the underwear scene, where Ellen is at a dance class, wearing an awful union suit under her ballet costume, rolled to the waist. As she is doing her ballet moves, she can feel the underwear start to slip, and — horrors! — the ballet teacher’s son Otis Spofford, the worst boy in her class, can see it, too! He’s observing and mocking her from a spot where she can see him, but his mother can’t. Ellen’s acute embarrassment, in a scene that goes on and on, was painful to me. Poor Ellen! I knew just how she felt, and I wished I could be her friend. I felt like I was her friend, her secret friend who really understood her. But not a jealous friend — I was happy when she and Austine became friends over a shared secret, sad when they almost lost that friendship, and relieved when they worked things out. I read that book with an intensity that was like nothing I had known from any other book.
Until that time, I had no idea that all those feelings could be written down, and put in a book, and that you could know a character like this. I’m not sure that I even knew that other people had all these feelings like I did.
And then I read “Otis Spofford,” the sequel to “Ellen Tebbits.” I thought I knew all about Otis, but I was wrong. He was such an awful boy in the first book, but in the second one, I saw that he had his own thoughts and feelings, and his own reasons for doing the things. He’s not bad, he’s just a boy looking for a little excitement.
These two books made me think that maybe everyone could be in a book with their name as the title, and if only you could read that book, you’d understand that person. It’s important to try to see other people’s point of view — this was an important life lesson to learn, something I still struggle with at times!
[The Hamilton-Wenham Public Library is doing a community read program on Anita Silvey's Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book, and members of the community are contributing their own favorites. This post is adapted from a message I wrote many years ago on the rec.arts.books.childrens newsgroup.]