I absolutely subscribe to the idea that the books I read as child have subconsciously influenced my personality, tastes and interests as an adult. Even though Little Women was my "official" favorite book as a young girl, later replaced by Connie Briscoe's Big Girls Don't Cry when I was in high school, I think that the series I reached for over and over during my impressionable "tween" years are the ones that informed my worldview in ways of which I am probably still not fully aware.
The characters that I grew up with and counted among my closest literary friends were:
Alice Mckinley from the Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
She was growing up in my neighborhood (Silver Spring, MD) which made her daily experiences incredibly relatable, the author came to visit my class in elementary school (so exciting!), and the books were filled with scandalous references to puberty that landed the series the #2 spot on the ALA's Top 100 Banned Books 2000-2009. The Alice books raised a number of issues my mother would never have broached with me and as Alice navigated growing up without a mother, I learned how to go from little girl to young woman right along with her. I'm so excited that there's a final book coming out next spring that will trace Alice's adult life from 18-60 and I will definitely be reading it.
Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield aka the Sweet Valley Twins by Francine Pascal
From their middle school through college years and up through their TV series (I can still sing the theme song), I read about Jess and Liz's adventures and imagined myself as their long lost triplet. I attempted to recreate Jessica's cookie disaster (total fail) and got overwhelmingly emotional when they were confronted with the death of a friend for the first time. I think every little girl (who isn't a twin) wants a twin at some point and this series gave me a glimpse into a type of sibling relationship I'll never get to experience in my own life.
Every member of the Baby-sitters Club by Ann M. Martin
Even though I got my fill of baby-sitting at home, I still longed to be a member of the BSC. I definitely absorbed/ imitated/longed for traits from every character--most of my ballet knowledge came from Jessi's books, I drew hearts over my "i"'s, I wished I was as stylish as Claudia (um how awesome is that blog?), the list goes on and on. I still make BSC references (have you lost your yellow ribbon anybody?), the BSC was my first introduction to the dynamics of girl group friendships (who can forget the fallout from Mary-Anne's Makeover?) which might have been step one towards my sick addiction to the Real Housewives franchise and who knows, maybe my easy affection for CT is rooted in that small part of me that still wants to visit Stoneybrook? Yep, BSC definitely influenced the Chelle that is today.
Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
I had no clue what it meant, but I also suggested naming my baby brother "One-Ball Reilly" (thankfully my mother wasn't paying attention). I also made (and still make) copious lists about random elements in my life and I also wanted to live in a tower. I knew how it felt to have a baby brother come into your life and change everything, and I related to Anastasia's constant self-doubt and changing her mind. Anastasia was painfully honest and I wonder how I would feel re-reading her story now from an adult perspective. The books also stirred up controversy, earning the series the 29th spot on the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. I guess I had a thing for tween rebels?
One of the things that you might immediately notice from this list (apart from the fact that I refuse to use images of the "new" covers- I am a purist!) is that much of my childhood worldview was informed by the adventures of girls who looked nothing like me (apart from Jessi, the lone brown member of the BSC). As a child, this didn't really dawn on me. I grew up in a predominantly White area and I was reading what my friends were reading. I got my fill of Black female leads in Sister, Sister (where I was again the imaginary triplet) and Moesha on TV and read plenty of individual novels with Black protagonists (most were historical fiction), but there were no prominent, readily available series featuring a prominent Black female lead for me to grow with through her first relaxer, being the only Black girl in the class, etc. I don't keep up with what my tween/teen cousins are reading these days but I sincerely hope that's a gap in the market that has closed since the '90s (if not, I may have to handle that...).
Perhaps it was my affinity for and identifying with the fictional young women listed above that made me an "Oreo" as I was often derisively referred to by my Black classmates (translation: Black on the outside, White on the inside). Their issues were my issues (except not at all), their lingo was my lingo and because their crushes were my crushes, I too assumed that eventually I would meet my Logan Bruno and he would be blue-eyed with floppy hair (to note: Anastasia's 6th grade crush was African-American, which I think was very edgy for a book written in 1979). As an adult looking back, I am absolutely certain that the time I invested into getting to know these characters shaped and defined the woman I am today and the woman I am still becoming. It makes me wonder what I will let my daughter (if I ever have one) read and what characters she will grow to love and emulate.
What books influenced you as a child? If you're part of an ethnic or racial minority group, did you find it hard to find characters growing up to whom you could relate? Can you recommend any modern young adult series' prominently featuring minorities as the main characters?