• Shari Simpson

The Stories that Shaped a Childhood

It was the 1970s, so while I rode in the front seat of my Dad's green Monte Carlo without a seatbelt while he puffed on a cig and drank a martini, I always had a book in my hands. I couldn't read in a moving car because I suffered from wicked motion sickness (the smoke from his unfiltered Camels didn't help), but I wanted to be ready to jump back into a story the minute we rolled to a stop.

Books were my safe place, my protection. No, they couldn't function as a seatbelt or a gas mask or a cop scolding my father for drinking and driving, but they did protect my mind and heart. The stories whispered to me, reassuring me that other kids went through hard times and survived, that I wasn't the only one scared of the big wide world, that challenges could be healthy, or funny, or magical, or dipped in chocolate to sweeten the bitterness.

HEIDI made me long for the Swiss Alps and goat milk and a bed made out of hay. The descriptions of her anguished homesickness when she was taken away from her grandfather were so vivid and visceral, they told me that at least someone understood what depression felt like in a child. It was also my first real taste of spiritual faith, as Heidi learns to cope by prayer, and she gets her big, burly, bearded, butter-churning Gramps to break down crying when she reads him the story of the Prodigal Son.

Do you have a book that instilled an early life lesson in your heart?

I read CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN over and over again, entranced by the raucous true story of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their twelve children. It was the family I wanted, huge and happy and fun, with parents that loved each other and rarely argued. Lillian was my first role model, a famous psychologist and engineer who was an equal partner with her husband (in the 1920s!) and still managed to pop out a dozen kids and run a household. I didn't necessarily want to be in labor twelve times, but I knew that this was the kind of home I wanted, full of joyful, kind people and laughter and forgiveness.

Who was your first role model from a book?

Oh, Roald Dahl, I know you were a very sketchy human being, but boy, could you write. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and, to a lesser extent, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, shaped my sense of humor as a child. When the perfectly wonderfully awful Veruca Salt got sucked into the rubbish chute for being a rubbish child, I was transported to a world of justice conveyed through macabre humor and this, more than any of the other books on my list, influenced my own writing style. Just wait until you read my villain, Madalynn Sucret, in SAM SAVES THE NIGHT. She's got Dahl in every fibre of her being.

What book made you laugh out loud as a child?

Most kids go through a "scare the crap out of me, please" book-reading phase, and mine began with THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND and literally everything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, THE WITCHES OF WORM, THE HEADLESS CUPID, SEASON OF PONIES, etc. Snyder, in particular, prepped me for my Stephen King phase, because she was freakin' weird, y'all. I recently re-read WITCHES OF WORM and I was amazed at how dark it was. Scare the crap out of me, indeed.

Did you like reading scary stuff as a kid?

TIME AND AGAIN was the first installment in my long obsession with time travel. The story of a man who zaps back a hundred years to solve a mystery and ends up altering the future made me consider the concept of actions having consequences, and how awesome/awful it would be if we could have a do-over for some of our choices. Mind you, this is an adult novel that I read when I was ten years old, so that explains a lot about me, no? Remind me to tell you some time about reading JANE EYRE when I was eleven and how it

Did you have a childhood book that opened your mind to mature concepts?

No avid reader in the 1970s could ignore the first Queen of YA, Judy Blume. While my friends were in pretzel-y fits over ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET, I was taken with the gentler DEENIE. I identified with the main character who had been diagnosed with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace to school, making her the ultimate outcast and nerd. I didn't have a physical manifestation of my "otherness" like Deenie did, but I felt it keenly and was certain that everyone in the world could clearly see just how much I didn't fit in. The passages about Deenie trying to choose clothing that would hide her brace just about broke me. Judy Blume is the Queen for a reason, amiright?

What literary character did you most identify with and why?

Oh, sure, there were many, many other books that rocked my 'tween world, but these are the ones that I still think about and mull over. I see my kid self, sitting in my favorite chair by the front window, my face buried in a giant tome, my mother yelling, "For God's sake, go outside and get some exercise, will ya?" I see my cousins teasing me about the thickness of my books and my glasses, my friends putting me on their softball team as a gesture of pity and for comic relief, and my fourth grade teacher's annoyance when I corrected her spelling in front of the entire class because I had just seen that word she misspelled in one of my books and how dare you, lady?

But most of all, I see a child whose life was saved by stories. Will my writing ever be good enough to ease the hearts of the kids who feel their otherness with such profound certainty? Will I be able to convey my deep spiritual faith in a way that starts conversations instead of ending them? Will my stories make them laugh so hard that their stomachs hurt and now they just know that everything will be okay?

That is my prayer.

-- Shari

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Author & Screenwriter 

Shari Simpson 

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