Characters as Role Models by Sandy Brehl

While I was in college, back in the dark ages, a teaching supervisor asked who my role models were while growing up. I’m rarely at a loss for words, even when those words occasionally land my foot directly into my mouth. But this question left me silent.


Here’s the thing.


I grew up in a home that was utterly secure, feeling utterly safe and loved. My parents, teachers, family and friends were bright, sociable people. The president was John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr. was my living hero. Movie idols were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly; television programs included Bonanza, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet.


In other words, I was surrounded by positive role models.


Yet when asked that question I came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t recall ever actively wanting to “be like” any of them. That’s not to say I was a rebellious and defiant kid. Opinionated and strong-willed, yes, but I was determined to get a scholarship for college, and needed one desperately.  I walked the straight and narrow, and then some. In fact, it was my goal to walk it faster, farther, straighter, and carrying a better grade point than anyone else.


But that’s not why I read.


The question of role models reminded me that from my earliest days as a voracious reader I used characters, fictional and non-fictional, as my role models. My default approach to reading was to fall into a book. The world within its pages became mine, and I knew the characters intimately. To some extent I lived through them, having virtual lives decades before that phrase applied to digital crazes.


Experiences shape our development, and mine was shaped, reshaped, and defined through those reading identities. Books offered opportunities to try on personalities, relationships, history, and fantasy in ways that felt authentic. Then I could close the pages of the book, carrying new friends and information into my fairly parochial world. As time passed I would absorb or discard various possibilities as they suited the adult I was becoming.


Those shared identities awaited me at every age, meeting me where I was at the time and letting me become who I wanted or needed to be. Oddly enough, the details of those characters and their stories were often forgotten as new ones took their places in my heart. From each, though, I absorbed what mattered most. Of the thousands of books I read as a child, the names and particulars of only a few dozen characters stayed with me over time without later rereading.


odin's promiseOdin’s Promise, my debut middle grade historical novel, is Mari’s story. Her view of the German occupation of Norway during World War II is a very personal one.  I’m not Norwegian: I wasn’t alive at that time in history. Once my own travel experiences and research allowed me to find Mari’s voice, I fell into her world, too. More often than not she led me away from the story I intended into the one she needed me to tell.


When I admitted to being strong-willed and opinionated, I was being tactful. To be honest, I have some control issues, and that carries over into writing. Mari is a much quieter, more reserved child than I ever was, but she won the battle every time. I fell into her world while writing in much the way I did as a young reader.


I hope readers will fall into this book and find themselves joining Mari in her little village, facing heartache and hardship with courage and humor. Along the way they may gain more understanding of history, of war, of the importance of making choices, and of themselves.



Sandy Brehl is a retired teacher, now writing picture books, poetry, paneled text, middle grade fiction, and working with SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in Wisconsin. Her website www.SandyBrehl includes writer’s blog.  She also blogs about using picture books with all ages at You can find her on Twitter as @SandyBrehl and @PBWorkshop.