My Sister and The Famous Five

I was told that I learned how to read watching my father turn the pages of L’Orne Combattante, one of the local newspapers published in my native Normandy.

I remember of the rough texture of his workpants against my small fingers when I gripped his leg to sit on his lap.

“Papa, what does it say? Tell me the story. Please, what is it?”

I remember that my father smelled of Gauloises cigarettes, masculine sweat, and cologne, while my mother smelled of coffee, French chalk, and eau de toilette.

My father drove trucks from Normandy to Paris every single day.

My mother was a seamstress working from home.

When my mother sewed, she listened to the radio.

When my father wasn’t driving, he read.

So it is possibly true that I learned how to read with my father.

I was also told that my paternal grandfather, blind by the time I was five, had been an avid reader. It is also possibly true since he encouraged my hunger for stories.

“Buy a book,” he would say, slipping crisp French bills or shiny coins in my hand for my birthday and Christmas.

I was six when I bought my first Club des Cinq books. I had no idea that The Famous Five series had been first written in English.

My favorite character was Claude; George in the original version. It was no coincidence that this girl had a unisex name.

In a world dominated by men, where girls who loved to climb trees and ride their bikes recklessly were called tomboys, Enid Blyton had created a girl who broke barriers and killed clichés. Claude/George was capable, smart, and witty: she was my dream friend and role model.

I grew up years away from Katniss and Tris, the strong female characters that inhabit contemporary YA literature. However, for the kid I was, The Famous Five, among other similar series, responded to the same urge for freedom and independence that I craved.

I remember stormy Thursday afternoons when there was no school. Wind slapped the shutters against the windows and rain pelted the roof while I read, my back propped against pillows, with the radio playing French and British songs and the humming of my mother’s sewing machine for background.

The occasional “Zut” that my mother uttered when she pricked her finger with a needle reached me through some kind of dreamy fog. Entangled in the story, she had to pull me away from “this darned book” while my sister focused her attention on strips of fabric that my mother didn’t use.

While she created clothes for her dolls and mini curtains for their houses made out of shoe boxes, my mind was in another world, caught up in solving a mystery that involved good and bad guys.

My sister didn’t like the fact that I refused to play with her when I was in the middle of a book. When I agreed, I invented games, which almost always involved two girls alone in the wilderness. We had to fight for food, for a roof, for protection. We had to fend for ourselves, away from the safety of the guest bedroom where our mother sewed. We were free from the rules of the adult world.

My sister didn’t like these game scenarios very much. Moreover she resented the time I spent with my books because she didn’t like to read.

And this is how I became a writer.

For the avid reader I was, my sister’s indifference toward stories and books was a mystery that I had to tackle.

When we are children we are afraid of the dark, of the school bully, of the creepy neighbor, and of being the only one who thinks crazy thoughts, but we are also fearless in the sense that failure hasn’t become yet a wounding word.

I figured that if my sister didn’t like to read she hadn’t found the right story. In my nine-year-old mind it was as simple as that.

This is how I wrote my first story.

I wrote in two thin spiraled notebooks because I loved series. My sister had to get a book with two volumes.

I cut out pictures from La Redoute and Les 3 Suisses – the French versions of the JC Penney catalogue and glued them on the cover. My sister had to get illustrated books.

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I mimicked the design of my beloved Enid Blyton’s books, including the ISBN and the readers’ age. My sister had to get legit books.

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My protagonists were two girls and two boys. The savviest was Frédérique, which is the female version of Frédéric; close enough to a unisex first name.

The plot was simple. A former rich old lady can’t remember where she hid her money in her dilapidated castle. Thanks to four smart kids the treasure is recovered after days of adventures.

Yes, the ingredients of my first story were similar to the ones Enid Blyton used for her successful plot recipe. The title mimicked hers too.

Le Secret de la Vieille Demoiselle (The Old Lady’s Secret), my first story, was followed by many more and also by poems as my discovery of writers and exploration of literary genres grew.

I was ravenous and never satiated, so like many people who love books I entered the publishing industry.

This is where I learned how books were made for real. This is also where I quit writing.

At least until I left Paris for California where, submersed by so many intense new experiences, I had no choice but write again.

In French first.

Then, years later, in English.

 

Over one recent summer, my sister and I got to spend more time together than we had for years. Our days in the company of each other in our parents’ home triggered long conversations punctuated by comfortable pauses that a common childhood allows.

Over countless espressos and late evening talks we shared lots of stories. Exactly twelve months separate my sister and me. Nothing now that we are adults. A whole world when we were children. Over these short but charged summer weeks, we were once more our parents’ children. And I was again the eldest.

This is why my sister was the one who spoke of the books I had written for her when she was eight.

“I still have them,” she said.

The following day she handed me Volume II.  “I’d like you to have it,” she said.

As a kid my sister had preferred Volume I. She had given a valuable lesson to her apprentice writer sister: the first chapter and even first lines of a story are very important if a writer wants to capture the limited attention of a reader.

“It could be fun for you to read your first French story,” my sister went on.

 

I had never re-read Le Secret de la Vieille Demoiselle.

When I flipped open the first page, my fingers cramped.

I wrote this story by hand, and in a Proust moment, this notebook triggered a rush of sensory and emotional memories.

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I remembered of tiredness when my hand clasped around my pen, of challenge, too, when I struggled with the plot. I was nine years old after all.

But the moments of pure joy when I found a word I liked, an idea to build more conflict, or simply when I forgot that I was a little girl and was instead a writer, were as vibrant as they were back then.

I read the story with affection and respect for the girl I was once. My childish words carried ideas, emotions, and tastes that are still mine.

When I closed the notebook, I remembered with equal affection of The Famous Five.

The first books that triggered my desire to write my first story were originally written in English, foreshadowing my future life in a country where I would someday learn how to write in English.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Sisyphus47 says:

    Une merveilleuse évocation (je me rappelle très bien de ces petits livres illustrés…)

    • Ils étaient super! Il y avait aussi le Clan des Sept mais j’ai gardé un faible pour le Club des Cinq. On n’oublie pas les les premiers livres qu’on lit tout seul comme un (e) grand(e). Merci pour votre visite, Sisyphus.

      • I remember those books so well!!! I also wanted to be George!!! And even now, when I am out with my dogs sometimes, I look at them and think about Timmy!!! 🙂

  2. That’s a very nice story. Thanks for sharing it. I’m glad you learned to write in English, since I’ll probably never learn to read French.

  3. cardamone5 says:

    I absolutely love this. The details you provide made me feel like a kid again, an amazing skill I am trying to emulate in the writing the childhood sections of my memoir. Just wonderful. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your nice words about this post. I’m especially glad that you felt like a kid again when you read my words, because I think that as adults we become bigger, taller versions of our smaller, shorter selves, but deep inside we are pretty much the same. I’m also curious about your memoir so I will visit you soon!

  4. One of my favourite books back when I was a kid was also Famous Five! I loved them!

    • They were so great for young kids. As I wrote above (in French) to Sisyphus, I also liked other series, quite similar, but the first books we read on our own leave an impact. Thank you for stopping by.

  5. This is a wonderful post Evelyne – your descriptions of your mother and father are so evocative and then the story of your passage into writing. It’s great that your sister kept the books you wrote for her. I read the Famous Five as a child – I re-read a couple recently and George is definitely the most likeable character – unlike poor Anne who is something of a stereotype. My first memory of writing was basically re-writing a Nancy Drew adventure, so I guess that’s how we learn, first by emulating and then finding our own voice.

    • Thank you, Andrea for your comments on my post. I agree with you that our first writing pieces are more than often copied from the books we liked as kids. Finding our voice takes time, I also agree with you on that one.

  6. I like your story. My oldest granddaughter is budding writer…she had written stories since she was old enough to hold a crayon. Today, she is also nine, writing beautiful stories in notebooks, such as you did. I hope she can do as well as you have. 🙂

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

  7. Famous Five sounds even better in French! ‘Club des cinq’ has such a ring. Normandy sounds a richly creative place to grow up. Enjoyed your post.

    • Thank you so much for your visit. I suppose that the place where we grew up sounds always more interesting to others. Back then, I dreamed of the US, although I had no idea that I would live there someday. See you on your blog.

  8. Great post! I loved what you said about the first lines of the story 🙂
    http://advocacyautismspecialneeds.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/reflections-on-life-laughter-and-love/

  9. Isn’t it fascinating how our experiences in our young lives come back to influence us so heavily in adult life? I love the way you describe your memories of your life growing up in France and the influences from your parents and from The Famous Five books, which I also adored and spent hours reading! I was that tomboy, climbing trees and riding bikes recklessly. That’s why I loved those stories. So much that you share here, how your earlier life ran into your later life, I can resonate with so much. I had no idea that I would end up in California, raising my children there, yet, I think that deep down, I always knew it would happen. Just as you probably did when you wrote your first book in English.
    Beautifully written and evocative post Evelyne, thank you.

  10. Well written. Its inspiring indeed, to read such a beautiful writing by a beautiful writer. Your art to express has to be learned. I am lucky that you write in English, I would have missed it. Thanks for sharing. ..

  11. This was extremely well written with a lot of sensory images-I loved that. As a writer, I usually write a thing once, review it maybe, then send it on its way. I don’t reread out my own writing a lot, but I really enjoy when I do, it teaches you a lot about your own self and your evolution in writing to back that way. Thanks for sharing!

  12. This is a brilliant post. I want to hurry up and comment so I can read it again! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, well deserved. I was easily taken with your story since I have a sister too, we are very different and I can totally see myself trying to encourage and enlighten her to my likes as a young girl, as you did. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • You are too kind. Really I don’t deserve any more recognition than any other blogger. I enjoy sharing bits of my life here in this unique country which is my home now. Writing here is a challenge but also a journey I enjoy, thanks to the unique American support that other bloggers and writers provide through their comments. Thank you for your kind words.

  13. Dear Evelyne,
    What an awesome blog and story. Here’s to you continue to write your stories in English and hopefully in French! Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  14. Thank you for reminding me of The Five Finders and Dog. My best friend and I ate up those books as if they were candy, We would reserve them at the local children’s library where they were always in great demand and then take them home and devour them. Durning the summer holidays she and I would try and ‘solve’ mysteries around our houses and the neighbourhood. One time we got into a great deal of trouble poking around our attic storage area looking for clues when I stepped on the wrong place and put my foot through the ceiling of my parent’s bedroom. Despite the uproar that ensued we were always ready to pursue new mysteries.

    • I’m so glad to see so many people who like me started their reading journeys with The Famous Five. It’s cool to read on you creating your own mysteries. Thank you for your visit.

  15. Nice little story there 🙂 I like to write but have never written more than a short story; I prefer writing poems. I think I tried to write one in French once, and I had all these wonderful words in my head but couldn’t think of the French counterparts! Your post reminded me that I want to be able to read a complete novel in French one day. I’m just so curious as to what things say when I can’t read them.

  16. hi goojy moojy evelyne holingue. you are so chubby

  17. Reblogged this on harapriyananda's Blog.

  18. Tara Twinkle says:

    What you’ve written above is a heart-warming little story…..I too wrote a ‘novel’ when I was nine years old… I read them and laugh over them nowadays.

    • Thank you, Tara. I think that we must love who we were when we were young because we are so honestly true to ourselves when we are children and teens. What we wrote then matters because we had not yet the fear of being ridiculous and unsuccessful.

  19. In you is the trace of the great writer, with five slants in French and English and in time and space.

  20. Oh this is awesome! Even more awesome because I also love the Famous Five, especially George/Georgina. Isn’t she Enid Blyton’s masterpiece?

    • Yes, I agree. At a time when girls were supposed to be girls, we needed a different one who more than often was exactly like so many girls. Thank you so much for stopping by.

  21. What a wonderful, well-written, and intriguing post! This reminds me so much of own early experiences with reading and writing stories. I remember writing stories when I was eight or nine, that blatantly imitated my favorite childhood authors but that began a lifelong enjoyment of creating stories and sharing them with others. Thank you for taking the time to share this story.

    • It’s okay to mimic. That’s how we learn to do everything before finding our voice. I am so glad to see that so many other wrote when they were kids. My own children did and I kept their first stories because these first words are so incredibly precious. Thank you for stopping by.

  22. Lovely post, dear. Enid Blyton was an inspiration to so many wasn’t she?

  23. This is so beautiful. Nostalgic too, in a lot of ways. I adore your spirit as a nine year old, writing down the story in a spiral notebook in hand, and not stopping for a moment. It takes me back to all the times I scribbled as a child, and more than that, when I used to sneak past bed time to finish ‘just another story’.
    Amazing write again, Eve.
    Loads of love. ❤

  24. I’m reading my six year old daughter the old Nancy Drew books. She loves them and I love re-reading them.

    • Oh I love her books too! In France Nancy Drew was Alice but the plots were the same. I found out when my daughters read the series. Your daughter is very lucky to have a mom who is reading aloud to her. She’ll love stories for the rest of her life.

  25. Congrats on being FP’d, Evelyne! 😀

    • It’s a little embarrassing because I have received lovely award nominations over the last months and have declined them. My rewards are the visits and comments of other bloggers and writers. But among the blogs I follow with interest, many have been Freshly Pressed so I feel honored too. Life is complicated. You were also someone who followed my blog in its early days so I’m gald that you stopped by. Your posts are highly creative and I enjoy to visit you as well. Cheers!

  26. very nice post … thanks

  27. Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

  28. Me too! I read them all: Famous Five (Club Des Cinqs–too cute!), The Secret Seven, The Twins at St Clares, Mallory Towers–Enid Blyton was my nourishment. Your gift to your sister was so tender. I read alone as a child because no one else thought it was fun(I just wrote a post on my own blog about this today) and my cousins thought it almost deviant that I would suggest reading as a form of play when they came visiting instead of more active outdoorsy pursuits. Now I write too. And read like a fiend. I was following the same routine in Ireland as you were in France, and now I continue them like you here in the US 🙂

  29. This is a wonderful post and you write beautifully 🙂 Look forward to reading more of your work soon 🙂

  30. What a wonderful story! I, too, grew up reading Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. I also enjoyed hearing my father read to me. You have triggered some very fond memories. Thank you.

  31. What a lovely piece, thank you for sharing it. I love how The Famous Five were such an inspiration. I loved those books and can’t imagine my childhood without them. 😉

  32. Great read! Brings back many of my childhood memories and the Famous Five books!

  33. Moxie in the Making says:

    Beautifully written! I recently read through some of my old writing, too, and was both extremely grateful I’ve improved and missing the childish simplicity it all contained. Life was simple-fairytales began with “once upon a time,” and mysteries started with “on a dark and stormy night.” They all ended happy, regardless of their opening lines. Also, Tris and Katniss are some of the best characters ever written. Love those books!!!

    • It is true that our writing (hopefully) gets better as we get more experienced. But I still think that we should look at our early words with affection and respect. Thank you for your visit and comment.

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  36. You managed to get across the … whatever it is about sisters as children. It took me back instantly, across a distance of 60 years. You must indeed be a writer !

    • I’m glad that my simple words took you back to your own childhood memories. Siblings relationships are complex, right?

      • Extraordinarily so. I was the 4th of 5 girls !
        Hope you’re coping with the Freshly Pressed results: it can be exhausting – and probably was, on the strength of such a nice piece of writing !
        Courage, mon brave ! (I doubt one can say “ma brave” !) 😀

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  39. Reblogged this on tjphull.

  40. This story reminds me of what triggered my love for reading and writing when I was seven. Lovely story, thanks for sharing!

    • One of the most frequent comments I love to read is about what triggered our love of readind and writing. So thanks to you for sharing your experience too.

  41. Beautiful. I love that you started writing for your sister — that really resonates with me. While I didn’t really start writing for my sister, she was certainly the first person I shared a story with, and I feel like there is a special bond there because I know she has enjoyed stories that no one else will probably ever see. Thanks for sharing your origin story!

    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing your own experience with your sister. Although my sister and I were, and still are, very different I’m happy to have her in my life. She certainly triggered this desire to write.

  42. Inspiring and a very neat handwriting sister.
    Like you, I have learned English too. My mother tongue is a language you have never heard of, Malayalam.
    Check out my blog at http://abdulwajidck.wordpress.com

    • Thank you for stopping by. I will visit you, too. And you’re right, I had never heard of your native language. So much more unique than French.

      • Unique, Unlike French, this a local language spoken by merely less 2 crores of peoples. Malayalam is spoken by peoples of Kerala, A state in India.

        Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayalam for learning more about our language.

        Kerala is home to the beauty of nature, It is a tourist hub too. Ever planning for a tour, then consider kerala.

        We welcomes you 🙂

  43. Reblogged this on Tarek Elbakry's Blog.

  44. The Famous Five is and always has been one of my favorite series. I started reading the Indian publications of the original British novels when I was 6 years old. Ten years later I’ve read the entire series, back to front, at least 12 times. Still my favorite children’s novels.

    • It’s pretty cool to see how so many people have read the books in so many different languages. My kids are too young, though, and have never read them. So for me The Famous Five remain very much linked to my childhood in France.

  45. There are certain collections I will buy my children, nieces and nephews and the famous five is definitely one of them. Thanks for your inspiring and beautiful post.

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