Yesterday, I learned of the author Mary Rodgers’ death (1931–2014) in the way I often get my news—through Entertainment Weekly. I’d just been talking about her a few weeks ago at the Book Passage Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference during a workshop discussion about middle grade authors who inspired in us a desire to write middle grade fiction.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mary Rodgers—those were my heroines. Maybe I’ve written this before, but when I was 6 years old, my father gave me my first chapter books—Little House in the Big Woods and Freaky Friday. I remember it clearly, sitting at the kitchen table with him as he explained these books didn’t have as many pictures as the books we usually read (or any, in the case of Rodgers’ Freaky Friday), and that I would be reading them on my own. I was familiar with the TV show, Little House on the Prairie, of course. It was a favorite of my older sisters’, so naturally a favorite of mine.
I took the plunge—no Reading Rainbow required. Whenever I finished a Little House book, Dad would give me the next one. About a year and a half later, I’d made my way through the entire set.
I adored them, but the book I re-read over and over and over until the covers fell off and the spine broke, was Freaky Friday. I didn’t get it entirely, but I loved the concept—a girl switches places with her mother and gets to be an adult, but only for one day! It was magic in the modern world, and it was laugh-out-loud hilarious. As I got older and read it again and again, the jokes became clearer. And talk about voice! Annabel Andrews was my intro in how to speak Snark.
My original copy of Freaky Friday from my kidhood. Only $1.50!
I put off watching the Jodie Foster movie (actually, I had no choice—the Internet didn’t exist, and the public library didn’t lend out movie reels) until it appeared on television one lucky evening. I remember thinking that the movie was OK, but nowhere as appealing or witty as the book, even though Rodgers wrote the screenplay. (The Lindsay Lohan–Jamie Lee Curtis rendering from 2003, was fine, too. Look, just read the book first. Trust me.)
The story was the first I knew of to deal with the comedy of body swapping. It’s been done so many times since then. I even wrote my own short story, published in a now defunct ezine, about a woman who one day mysteriously switches places with her high school nemesis. The idea of being able to walk around in someone else’s shoes while maintaining your own sense of self is very appealing. Isn’t that what reading fiction does? Mary Rodgers taught me that.
Confession time: I never bothered to get to know anything about her. (Again, no Internet and…no imagination?). As a kid, I read A Billion for Boris, but didn’t think to look up the rest of her oeuvre, although just the other day in the library, I almost borrowed Freaky Monday, then got distracted by something shiny—probably my kids. This morning, I looked her up on Wikipedia. I didn’t even know about her work as a musical composer. Looks like I have some more digging to do.
But first I’ll say, thank you. Thank you, Mary Rodgers. Freaky Friday fit my tween-age sensibilities to a T, and was one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer. It helped shape my identity in so many ways and opened up the world. That’s the responsibility of children’s books, and Ms. Rodgers did it well. I’m forever grateful.