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Sunday, February 7, 2016

My Girl Eloise

Who was your favorite character in a book when you were growing up? Did you have one? I liked a lot of books, and a lot of characters, but gravitated completely to just one. Her name was Eloise.

I think Eloise was my first brush with the idea of “cool.” She wasn’t cute, she wasn’t sunny and she wasn’t girly. She was tough, mischievous and funny. And even though she lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York (and what kid wouldn’t want to do that?) – Eloise’s life wasn’t perfect.

For one thing, her mother was always gone, jetting here and there for unexplained reasons. (I loved that her mother was a mystery, because most mothers are). Eloise was a child raised by a nanny, angling for attention in sly, covert ways while endlessly curious about the world.

She didn’t seem to have a lot of playmates, but she made friends with dozens of people at the hotel and she was also good at pretending. Since I was too, that endeared her forever to my heart. She also had grimacing contests with pigeons, massacred her dolls and then pretended to repair and doctor them, recounted her nightmares and tormented her French teacher.

How could anyone living or dead not fall in love with her?

Some years after discovering Eloise I found a picture book about a little Beat Generation girl named Suzuki Bean. She was also a great little heroine, or anti-heroine, which is how I think of Eloise. At the time I didn't know it, but reviews said Suzuki was a kind of satire on Eloise (and her "downtown version" sister).

Somehow these two characters fused in my mind and led me to create an older version of both of them. That became the genesis of The Beat on Ruby’s Street. In developing Ruby, I had to create more of her world and her ambitions, surrounded by Beat poets and rebels and parents who messed up (as we all do) when she needed them most.

I also wanted my character to be the opposite of Barbie, which I admit to playing with as a kid, but I also have to say she was uninspiring at best. Eloise, meanwhile, had a life to lead (and it was not about clothes and guys). And not only was the Eloise character someone I wanted to meet and be; the pen-and-ink style drawings of New York, the Plaza and Eloise herself were nothing short of iconic (and still are). 

Because the book’s author Kay Thompson wouldn't sell the film rights, the main way to discover Eloise before Thompson died was through the author’s books. There’s something I like about that, too, maybe because it’s the opposite of commercial. Which, as Ruby would say, is cool. In fact, my husband once mentioned he saw some sort of Eloise story on TV and I couldn’t watch it. I just knew they’d mess it up, somehow.

Am I sounding too much like Holden Caulfield? Too bad. Some characters are just sacred, and we need to keep them tucked away, I think, in the secret drawers of our childhood.

Who are the characters you want to keep? And why?