My sister’s and my games always started this way. We’d partition our shared bedroom into different spaces, depending on the storyline of that day’s game. Sometimes we lived in an isolated wood cabin, other times in an abandoned train car, often in a boat. In the stories we created, we were always subjected to the worst of situations—our makeshift home was buried deep in dark and frigid woods, wolves roamed around our walls and we needed to cross violent rivers (by jumping on pillows we laid on the floor) for morsels of food. If she crossed past the imagined walls of our home, my sister would feign pneumonia and shiver and shake until I rushed over and carried her back into the “house”. We’d turn of the lights to simulate nightfall and she pretended to be terrified while I took care of her. We transformed adulthood into a game of pretend, mimicking what we believed adult life had in store for us.
When children in books faced the kinds of situations we built for ourselves in these games of pretend, I took note. Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society and E.L. Konisburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, all presented children without parents. They run away, or circumstances dictate that they live out on their own. The children are nearly all completely ordinary: they don’t have magical talents or secret wealth, but they’re gifted with a sense of practicality and inventiveness that I believe would surface if I were in the same situation as they were in. They showed how children lived apart from their parents. I saw how they created homes for themselves and how the older siblings parented the younger children. Though these children, for the most part, had tragic backstories, and necessity pushed them towards functionalism and inventiveness, I was envious of their independence and their ability to make a home for themselves, without their parents.
The children in these books were ingenious, but not geniuses. For example, in the Mixed-Up Files, Claudia and James Kincaid run away from their home in Greenwich, Connecticut and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Short on cash, they pick up coins museum visitors had thrown into the water while bathing in the fountain in the Egyptian wing of the MET. They sleep in a 16thcentury Saxonburg bed on display in the Renaissance Wing and stand on top of the toilet bowls in the bathroom to escape the night guard while he makes his rounds right after the museum closes.
The characters in The Boxcar Children find an abandoned boxcar in the woods and make it their home. Jess, twelve years old, finds a chunk of wood nailed to a closed door and comments that “it was the perfect shelf”. She dusts it off and places the few dishes they salvaged from a junk pile there. She needed to find a way to keep the milk jugs cool, so she found a quiet pool behind a small waterfall. The icy water swirled around the bottles of milk. When she picked the bottles back up in the morning, cold water had beaded onto the glass jugs. When I thought of The Boxcar Children for the first time in years, the only detail I could remember was the milk bottles propped up against the rocks. Jess had the grown-up abilities that I idealized as a child. She had all the creativeness and inventiveness I wanted for myself, compounded with the independence of living on her own.
On their first night in the boxcar, Jess points out a place in the underbrush where “blueberries were so thick that the bushes almost bent over with their weight”. That evening, Jess cupped the blueberries into “four little mounds” and they ate blueberries and milk and thick squares of brown bread for dinner. We emulated these scenes in our own games of pretend. These scenes made it seem like there was an actual possibility we could find ourselves alone. Everything falls into place perfectly for the siblings: they do not go hungry; they find rose-bordered porcelain dishes and a warm boxcar to live in. This romanticized their situation. When my sister and I played pretend, we imagined that it would be quite like that. Like Henry and Jess and their siblings, or Claudia and James Kincaid, we’d survive and actually make a home for ourselves, no matter where we were in the woods, or in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These novels made it seem possible that we’d have to survive on our own and idealized this sort of rugged and inventive living.
The characters in these books demolished the limitations placed on children. While my dad would say, “maybe later,” or “we’ll see tomorrow,” or “when you’re financially independent, you can do whatever it is you want,” these authors showed us that these children can fend for themselves. I looked at Claudia and Henry and Jess—even Benny, the five-year-old little brother—and they all seemed to have more independence than I did. These kids were so lucky, I thought, to be able to live on their own.
So instead, we played pretend. We reduced adulthood to a few chores and romanticized the hardships of the children in the novels. My sister and I would step over the blocks that formed the front door of our make-believe house. We tiptoed around the bedroom, lifting our arms and bringing our small fingers to our mouths, pretending to eat the berries we picked out of the air of our bedroom. I pretended to empty out my hands over the cup I used to hold my toothbrush, imagining berries rolling off my palms and into a big bowl. For tomorrow, I thought.