In: The American Girl, June, 1927
Barbara Follett Writes a Book
by May Lamberton Becker
I have just been reading a book by a girl: it is called The House Without Windows (Knopf) and is by Barbara Newhall Follett, who is twelve years old now, but was nine when first she put this story upon paper. It was scarcely completed when it was destroyed in a fire from which her family had to run for their lives. One would have thought the story was quite gone, for the hardest thing to do with the memory is to bring back something that you have once written down and lost. But Barbara worked at it for three years; by that time it had grown into a longer and even more lovely story, and the author had come to the edge of her ‘teens.
It is the tale of a little girl named Eepersip, who lived with her parents in a house with a garden, pretty enough but set in a countryside far more interesting. So one day Eepersip packed a little lunch basket and started out.
“… She went east from her home on a shady path through beautiful woodlands, with her and there a grove of great massive pines. And as she walked she sang merrily.
“After quite a while she stepped out of the woodlands onto a large lawn. Close to the path there was a pool, with some tiny gold-fishes swimming about it in. Then she knew that she was nearing a house, and instead of pacing slowly along the path she began to run; for she was afraid that someone would see her and send her back home. But after a few minutes she grew tired and settled down to a reasonable pace. And as she slowed down she came into an enormous field of rhododendrons, lavender, white and brilliant red. Oh, what a gorgeous place that was! As Eepersip walked along, an oriole sang from a bush; she peeped into a hummingbird’s nest with two tiny white eggs in it; she startled a vireo from its nest in a low clump of grass, and, peeping into it, found three baby birds. The farther she went the more her heart began to leap within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself. Her loneliness decreased and she was free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’
A little further on she crosses a brook.
“She paused on the path suddenly, then drew back, for a doe and her daisied fawn were grazing close by. Eepersip took from her basket a lump of sugar, and held it out to the beautiful creatures. Very hesitatingly the doe moved forward, followed by her fawn, and at last took the lump of sugar from Eepersip’s fingers.
“… Could it be a dream, she thought? Eepersip had experienced the delightful sensation of the doe’s slightly rough tongue around her fingers, and suddenly she felt as if she could never leave them–as if she must stay always and play in the woods. Already she had become acquainted with a doe and a fawn, and they were not afraid of her!”
And this, to put the story in a nutshell, is just what she does do. She never comes back, though the family tries continually to entrap her, and once does manage to keep her within doors for a little while. But she escapes, and this time they realize that they can never keep her. She lives first in the meadows, then beside the sea, then upon a mountain: her companions are a squirrel and a white kitten that never grows to be a cat, just as Eepersip stays the same age though three years pass. There is one little boy who comes out to play with her, and then her own sister whom she induces to stay for awhile, but who grows to homesick to remain. But Eepersip is never homesick, for she is really more a fairy than a child; she is the fairy that lives in a little girl’s mind in those years when anything that grows out-of-doors is worth more to her than anything that can be found within walls, even of a palace. With most of us the fairy goes away before we are ten, and goes so completely that it is hard for us to remember it was ever there. But Eepersip becomes more and more a fairy, until at length, one day when she is leaping high in the air, happy and free, a gold and black butterfly alights on either wrist, and as they wave their wings Eepersip rises, rises, until she is at last lost to sight. She is a wood-nymph now, a spirit of nature.
As I read Barbara’s book, I thought about you, and I realized that some of Barbara’s experiences will be very interesting whether you intend to write or not. The first special thing is the means by which this book was written: I mean the mechanical means. Barbara has “used a typewriter as a plaything from a time that she can’t remember.” As a result, she wrote this book directly on the keys, scarcely aware of the process of writing. So her thought could flow freely, unhampered by the strain of cramped pencil or pen. Most of us tried to write a book when we were little and gave up because our hands gave out. Of course the typewriter did not provide Barbara with the story, but it made it easier for her to give the story to us.
In the second place, read over the little bit of the story that I have quoted, and see how the words, even in these few sentences, impress you as appropriate, and arranged with simplicity and grace. Now words do not come into our heads by themselves: we have to get them from somewhere. Barbara’s father says that when she was nine her vocabulary was made up of “deposits from the works of Walter de la Mare, George MacDonald, W. H. Hudson, Mark Twain, Shelly and Scott. No books meant more to her, between the ages of six and ten, than The Three Mulla-Muggars, A Little Boy Lost, and The Princess and the Goblin.
I know these books well; I know with what felicity the words in them are chosen and used. When you are gathering the words for your vocabulary, those words that you will use all through life–for most of us lay in our stock of words while we are young–it is important that you should become accustomed to beautiful English. Lord Dunsany, when he was a little boy, read Shakespeare, the Bible and old ballads: he did not know there was anything else to read. His English was formed by these influences: he writes like no one but himself, but his words are dignified and expressive, his sentences move like music, and he speaks sincerely, not in phrases that mean nothing. Suppose he had been brought up on comic strips that say “wanna” and “gotcha,” and on stories for boys whose style is without form or comeliness? Perhaps you have no idea of writing. But why be content with even talking like the Rover Boys, when your language may be like that of the girl in the fairy story who dropped pearls every time she spoke?
The third point is, not to be afraid to use beautiful or new words, once you have made their acquaintance. Try them on the family, if you are afraid the girls at school may think you are “stuck-up,” but try them on someone. Use them in sentences, not only in your exercises in English class, but in your everyday conversation. Every new word that you can really use is a new idea, no matter how near it may come to another word. When you come upon one that looks attractive, don’t let it stop upon the page: take it out for exercise. And be sure that the books you read most often are those whose sentences are like music, or whose words arouse your imagination and make you wish to make them part of your vocabulary–which means part of your life.