The main character in Elizabeth Bass’ book, Life is Sweet, is a former teenage star of a hit ‘90s sitcom that decided she had enough of being in the limelight and most to Leeburg, Virginia, a seemingly perfect place to start over and, this time, to lead some sort of a normal life (read more of my thoughts on Bass’ book here). Two things struck me about the main character, Rebecca Hudson.
The first has to do with her contribution to the strengthening the community she moved to, however unintentional it might have been. Striking mental images were evoked by the author in Life is Sweet of a community coming together at Rebecca’s shop, “The Strawberry Cake Shop”. This is especially true at the end of the book, with three of the main secondary characters ingraining themselves at the shop, one bringing her laptop, one working the counter, and the last one playing live music the customers could enjoy. This must come as no surprise to readers who have been following this blog long enough to know that community building is a topic I frequently write about. I loved the idea of a bakery such as Rebecca’s becoming a centre around which a strong community can either be built or strengthened, and it made me wonder at the many opportunities to build a community we could create through our very livelihood.
The other was the ongoing theme of the child-star-not-gone-bad. The opposite, negative stereotype is the one that makes the tabloids, and it could be argued that this is one of the reasons stars are encouraged to act in a similar fashion. But Rebecca is not swept away by the need to remain in the limelight. Some might state that this is an unusual characteristic, and that most Hollywood stars will do anything to retain any form of fame they can. But perhaps it is yet again a case of not seeing all the positive because we are blinded by the few negatives. I recently had the opportunity to poke Bass’ brain on this question and explore how she came to view Rebecca in such a different light.
Some Thoughts on Child Stars, by Elizabeth Bass
I’ve always been fascinated by child stars. When I was young, of course, I had my favorite shows, and most of them had kids on them. Half-Pint, the Brady kids, the Partridges… I wasn’t envious, exactly, but curious. While the school bus was dragging me off to school each morning, other lucky kids were being dropped off at sound stages, or going on Good Morning, America to plug their shows. How did they manage it? Were they fabulously talented? Was not having to go to PE every day just a matter of being at the right place at the right time?
It wasn’t long before I understood there could be a downside to this life. The first show I remember being addicted to was a creaky 1960s sitcom called Family Affair, about a bachelor who is raising his nephew and two nieces. It was a shock to me later when Anissa Jones, the girl who played Buffy, the youngest kid, ended up dying of an overdose—a horrible end for anyone, but it seemed especially wrong for the sweet little kid I remembered from the show.
In so many ways, it’s a difficult path. Child actors are stamped on our brains as they were when they were at their cutest—and then are occasionally glimpsed as adults and inevitably viewed has-beens who couldn’t “make it” as adults—or else they keep working and have to grow up in front of the camera. It’s no wonder many of them seem to go a little crazy. The rest of us undergo our growing pains in relative privacy. As awful as puberty and being a teenager are, at least we don’t have to deal with acne, embarrassing hair, braces, and rebellious phases on national television. Our mistakes aren’t splashed across gossip magazines and websites. And if we drop the activities we did in our childhoods, we don’t spend the rest of our lives as the subjects of “Whatever Happened to…?” investigations.
A few years ago, I ran across a hilarious book called Notes from the Underwire by Quinn Cummings, who was a child star during the 70s and 80s. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Goodbye Girl, and was a regular on the series Family. In this book of essays, which I can’t recommend enough, she talks about her life growing up in Hollywood and also about other aspects of her world. The book started me wondering how a person would cope if she escaped from Hollywood to make a normal, unglamorous life for herself, and then found herself dragged back into the limelight by necessity.
In my novel Life Is Sweet, Rebecca Hudson is spending the last of her child-star earnings to run a bakery in Leesburg, Virginia. She’s managed to come out of the child-star experience as a basically happy and well-adjusted individual. The only thing that makes her grumpy is being valued solely for the television show she starred in when she was a kid. It’s only when a loved one in dire financial need comes along that she is forced to go on a reality show with fellow former child actors.
I had fun writing the story, but I still wonder what it must be like to trapped in people’s minds as an adolescent, which is probably the time you least want to remember. Much as we envy actors—and there are worse ways to spend childhood than as a Hollywood star—every life has its pitfalls. I wanted to give a child actor, even if it was just a fictional one, a second chance.
More information is available on the author’s website.
First published on Sahar’s Blog on 12 February 2015.