My First Imaginary Lives

One of my recent blog posts got the most fabulous comment the other day. Here it is, in part:

I also thought I was one of a very few people who lived (not a typo) Trixie Belden as a young girl. Since my family house was near some beautiful woods and a creek, my best friend – also a Trixie fanatic – and I would pretend Bob-Whites all day long. Everything, and I mean everything, we saw became a mystery. We could turn the sight of an elderly lady driving a VW bug into a kidnapping plot. We tied ropes to the handle bars of our bicycles and they became our horses. My two older brothers were, unbeknownst to them, Mart and Brian. We aggravated them to no end by calling them these names. I was Trixie – always – and my friend was Honey. Playing Trixie Belden and the Bob-Whites was a dream escape.

This shared memory threw me back to a time when I pretended just as intensely. Trixie Belden wasn’t one of my primary inspirations, though. I drew from a lot of sources, and I’d like to share a few of them today. Maybe they’ll spark a memory for you, too.

A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Boarding schools, nasty headmistresses, and orphans/orphanages fascinated me. Actually, anything British was good. But I had a special adoration for Sara Crewe. My siblings and I were homeschooled in our early years, so we made up Miss Campbell, an unpleasant teacher modelled after Miss Minchin, and invented tasks and rules to match — perplexing our parents, whose motivation for homeschooling us was largely to get away from rules and rigid thinking. (Not to suggest they thought all teachers were like Miss Minchin! That was entirely our invention.) The influence of Miss Campbell was probably also the beginning of my addiction to making lists.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Aside from all things British, my other fascination was all things historical (even better when they coincided). Pioneer life on the prairies made an appearance in our games anytime we were outdoors or camping. The only problem was that I was fair-haired and older and my sister was brunette and younger, which meant she got to be Laura and I had to be Mary. And, unfortunately for our younger brother, there are no male siblings in the books, so if he wanted to play, he had to be Carrie. The things he put up with, having two older sisters….

Swallows and Amazons and Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. Pirates and explorers were also favourites, and this series had the benefit of essentially narrating extended sessions of playing pretend. It was really LARPing (Live Action Role Playing), I guess, though these books were written long before LARPing was invented. Our playhouse in the back yard had a flag over the door; boats featured large; and in the winter our sleds were always transformed into sailing sledges (only in our heads, alas). I’ll talk more about Ransome in an upcoming Nostalgia piece.

If you know the sort of thing I write nowadays, you’ll notice there’s a distinct lack of science fiction and fantasy in the books I’ve listed. I’m not sure why. I also had a lot of dolls and Lego-sized figures, who had their own set of (more fantastical) ongoing stories…but that too is for another day.

Your turn! Did you have an active imaginary life as a child? Which books had the strongest influence on your play? Has your favourite genre (to write or to read) changed over the course of your life?

If you liked this post, you might also like Living Other Lives or perhaps the Nostalgia series, in which I share my favourite books and movies from childhood.

2 responses to “My First Imaginary Lives

  1. Mieka Tilley

    A Little Princess is on my list too but Burnett’s The Secret Garden would be higher up there. I was always searching for a hiding place like that when I was young.

    And Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is one I read over and over (and cried every time). The idea of an imaginary land just over the creek and escaping from the dreariness of the everyday world still appeals to me.

  2. Mieka, the idea of secret places fascinated me, too! I remember reading a lot of books along those lines, including the two you mention, and I was beyond thrilled to discover Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in (I think) high school. But for whatever reason, that concept never became a central part of my roleplaying.

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