Our September Book of the Month is The Book that Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge and published by Walker Books.
Inspirational. Affecting. A book for book lovers.
The Book That Made Me is a celebration of the books that influenced some of the most acclaimed authors from New Zealand and the world.
The Big Scooby-Doo Reveal © 2016 Rachael Craw
A scrawny ten-year-old girl, all elbows and knees, face plastered with freckles, scratching at her nape beneath a short sandy wig of tatty curls – that was me on Book Day at Kendal Primary School, Standard Four. Fossicked from the dusty innards of my mother’s wardrobe, that wig was a relic from the ’60s and a boon for an otherwise uninspiring costume of jeans turned up at the ankle and a plain cream shirt. It made my scalp and ears itch and the back of my neck red and sweaty. I wore it the whole day even though it was irritating and the colour, like the cream shirt, did nothing for my complexion. It was an act of devotion to my fictional heroine, Trixie Belden.
Trixie came into my life at a time when I needed her most, a tediously rainy school holiday on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, infamous for sandflies and precipitation. I must have been driving my parents mad with a constant liturgy of “I’m boooored” and “There’s nothing to dooooo” and sighing and moaning and making life miserable for everyone in the way that children do when they’re trapped indoors by bad weather and a waning appetite for imaginary play.
A mercy dash with my dad to the bookstore and there I found her – a fascinating thirteen-year-old rural American super-sleuth, resident of fictional Sleepyside-on-Hudson in upstate New York, club member of the Bob-Whites of the Glen, and best friend of wealthy and refined Honey Wheeler. Imagine my thrill upon discovering an entire shelf of adventures to pick from. Though the store didn’t have them all, I was eager enough that I didn’t even mind diving in mid-series. My choice was based on the sheer power of alliteration, a title so exotic and dangerous sounding I could not resist: The Mystery of the Midnight Marauder.
Now, I had no clue what a marauder was. I hoped and feared it meant murderer, though I was squeamish of anything bloodthirsty. I had only recently overcome a paralysing fear of vampires after copping an eyeful of the boy next door’s graphic encyclopedia of bloodsuckers. Flipping through those dark pages, it was the image of Nosferatu hanging in a belltower eating himself from the feet up that burned its way into my synapses. So I was in no hurry to read anything that involved a lot of blood, but the sense of high-stakes mystery that surrounded the word “marauder” drew me in. When I brought the book to the counter for Dad to pay, I made a point of looking as nonchalant as possible. I wasn’t idiot enough to ask him outright what the word meant. That would only draw attention to the potentially dangerous subject matter and risk confiscation. No, I played it cool.
Of course, I started the book in the car and when we got back to my nanna’s house I went straight to my room, lay on my bed and kept reading. By late afternoon I had gotten to know Trixie and her friends: sweet and gentle Honey, the enviably violet-eyed Diana and big, handsome red-haired Jim. Trixie was sweet on Jim. He gave her an identification bracelet. I suspected that was jewellery and it seemed a promising sign. I don’t think I’d ever read anything romantic before. I had started the book amped for mystery and discovered a bonus prize. Occasional flustered blushes, loggerheads arguments and lingering looks between Trixie and Jim made for giddy plot drivers that kept me turning the pages. Though, disappointingly, I never read a Trixie Belden story where they actually kissed.
Before the day was out, I had learned that a marauder was a roaming thief but that not all thieves were scoundrels. The moral lesson! Trixie, I discovered after several books, was often the beneficiary of the moral lesson, throwing herself into each mystery with righteous certainty to later trip on her own assumptions. Not all rich people were snobs, not all elderly recluses were hiding terrible secrets in their mansion attics, not all ethnically diverse people wearing leather jackets were villains. City life, drugs and motorcycles, however, were invariably bad. The reader might absorb these invaluable truths along with Trixie, usually just in time for the big Scooby-Doo reveal at the end when culprits were unmasked and motivations explained. The Mystery of the Midnight Marauder had all of these features and it ignited my imagination, leaving me hungry for more. Luckily, the rain persisted for several days and my father, for the sake of his wallet, signed me up at the Greymouth Public Library.
In retrospect, it’s fun to try to figure out why these books had so much appeal for me. As an adult I’ve had no interest in reading crime fiction or mystery novels, though in some respects my own novels in the Spark series carry a thread of mystery through it. I think what ultimately drew me to Trixie Belden stories was Trixie herself, a powerful female protagonist. She wasn’t perfect, she had fears and insecurities and she often made mistakes, but she was an instigator, an investigator, curious, bold and risk-taking. She was a thinker and problem-solver who came up with wild theories, a leader in the search for truth. In my later reading, Anne of Green Gables would also attract my attention for being a powerful female protagonist. She expressed herself, her curiosity, her creativity. She questioned authority and was ambitious and competitive, but before I met Anne, Trixie was the business.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then but now I think I was looking for a protagonist I could identify with. I loved that she was outspoken, opinionated and take charge. I loved that she had freckles! A shared affliction. It made up for her being more on the blonde side of sandy-haired. Growing up, I resented the lack of black-haired, pale-skinned heroines in books and on television. There was Wonder Woman, who I worshipped, but even she had a tan. I wasn’t fussed with Snow White who really just did a lot of housework, fell unconscious and then married the first man who kissed her. Besides which, she was preternaturally beautiful and I was an ugly child. Or, at least, I felt ugly. I was too tall, too skinny, too pale, too freckly, too loud and my ears stuck out. The only feature that I loved about myself was my long black hair but my mother, sick of maintaining it, took me to the hairdresser and had it chopped off! Not into a pretty bob like you might find on little girls today but short like a boy. I cried all the way home from the salon.
When I found Trixie she had short hair too, admittedly with curls, but freckles and short hair were two more likenesses than I had managed to find anywhere else.
Another big part of the allure of these stories was the potent American-ness of Trixie’s life. She and her friends rode a yellow bus to school where the corridors were lined with metal lockers and the desks were scalloped around the sides of their chairs, where they pledged allegiance to a flag before class began. They carried their lunches in brown paper bags, they went to pep rallies where cheerleaders turned flips and waved pompoms. They came home and did chores. Chores! They celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July with corn dogs and pumpkin pies.
I already had a firm scaffold of popular American culture constructed in my psyche thanks to television with the likes of Little House on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazzard and Happy Days (see Google and YouTube). The Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had come out when I was eight years old and, quite apart from the thrill of alien encounter, the scene in the breakfast booth where the kids sat and ate pepperoni pizza straight from the box impacted the wiring of my brain to such an extent that I have never, ever forgotten it. I couldn’t get enough of the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Trixie Belden provided that portal to another place, another culture that seemed different, larger and more interesting than my own. I was young; I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the culture or beauty of the landscape in which I lived, though that would come in time. At the age of ten, I felt my home was boring, small and tedious with its sameness. America was a distant wonderland, glittering with otherness. Thankfully, there were many books in the series which meant I could return to that wonderland again and again, revisiting those characters like old friends.That joy I found in reading serial fiction is one of the reasons I wanted to write a series myself, to create a world and characters readers would want to come back to. Trixie also inspired me, along with other strong female protagonists in fiction, to create Evie: a thinker, a planner, an initiator. One who questions authority, reacts to injustice and goes after the truth. She struggles with her lot, her insecurities and fears but still takes action. Admittedly, I did allow myself one small indulgence I hope you will forgive me for. I gave her long black hair, pale skin and freckles.
Text © 2016 Rachael Craw “The Big Scooby-Doo Reveal” by Rachael Craw, from THE BOOK THAT MADE ME (ed. Judith Ridge) Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Australia
About Judith Ridge
Judith Ridge is internationally recognised as one of Australia's leading experts on literature for children and young adults. In a career spanning more than 20 years, she has worked as a teacher, writer, critic and editor. Judith has taught children's literature at several universities and has been invited on numerous occasions to speak at conferences, festivals and seminars in Australia, Ireland, the UK and the USA. She has been a judge on the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, is a Churchill Fellow and has an MA in children's literature. Judith is currently writing her PhD on Australian children's and young adult fantasy fiction. She lives in a dusty old house in South Windsor, NSW, with two mad cats and too many books.
About Rachael Craw
Rachael Craw studied Classical Studies and Drama at the University of Canterbury, but became an English teacher after graduation. Working with teenagers has given her a natural bent towards Young Adult fiction and a desire to present a feisty female protagonist in her writing. Her debut novel, Spark, is the first in a series released with Walker Books Australia from 2014. Rachael was born and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, and currently lives in Nelson with her husband and three daughters. Visit her online at www.rachaelcraw.com