August ninth is National Book Lovers day; not just stories, but books, the tangible, welcoming feel of one page turning to the next, the heady weight of a longed-for novel, the scent of libraries and book stores, the cluttered shelves of second hand shops just waiting to be gleaned for treasures. It is old paper backs who’s bindings are held together with scotch tape, and hard backs that fall open to that one specific page you read over and over.
I intend to spend the day reading and writing, like most Wednesdays, but I thought I’d also celebrate it by taking a look back at the early books and series that have influenced me and turned me from the path of an average seven year old to a page devouring machine.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis- These are the stories that started it all. My second grade teacher, one Mr. Richard Toothman, introduced his classes yearly to the chronicles, namely, the three novels that star the Pevensie siblings; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. To say I was in love is putting it lightly, I was spellbound. Fauns, dryads, talking beasts, witches in sleighs drawn by white reindeer, Turkish delight. It was exotic, it was intoxicating. The only thing I wanted for Christmas that year was the series in it’s entirety, because three books was simply not enough. I read them all, over and over, constantly indecisive as to which was my favorite. Was it The Magician’s Nephew? With it’s travel between worlds and dying planets and the cabby horse that became the father of all Pegasi. Or was it The Horse and His Boy? It was by far the most “exotic” tale young Jessica had read, and what child doesn’t want to be rescued from their life of chores and apathetic parental figures? Especially by a talking horse who promises to whisk you away to a land of magic and freedom. Prince Caspian was a strong contender as well, as was Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Silver Chair was strange and dark and eerie and it took me some time to love it as I did the others, but Puddleglum is wonderful and the end is sort of ridiculous in a good way. The Last Battle… still gives me chills when I think of it. The darkness and turmoil of the final fight, a unicorn with a bloodied horn, a giant rising from his slumber to call the stars home, beasts rising from below the earth to devour every last living thing… and of course, onward and upward, into a Narnia that never ends, only improves, and is connected to every other world. People take away many different things from these stories, but mostly what I took away was the magic and the characters. No one told young Jessica that she was reading an allegory, young Jessica did not even know what that word was. All she knew was that Narnia was a place of promise, of magic, of truth, far brighter and blazing then anything she had in her little California town.
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner- Published in 1924, some seventy years later my third grade teacher, Mrs. Corless introduced her class to these stories. I was delighted to have a character who shared my name with elder sister Jessie, and I loved “playing house”, so the story of four siblings making ends meet while living on their own appealed to me a great deal. I adored the thought of foraging and inventing what was needed to make ends meet. After the Alder children sift through the nearby dump for treasure, I became enamored with the idea. I wanted to pick wild blueberries, live in the woods, and have a dog named Watch. Instead what ensued was at least a year straight of “playing Boxcar Children” with my best friend Caity. Cooking, cleaning, foraging and exploring. I read the first fifteen books in the series, stopping short of completing it for reasons I can’t recall. I loved how independent these children were, how intelligent and brave. Having a steel tycoon grandfather certainly didn’t hurt, of course. I would love to get my hands on the original story (it was heavily revised some twenty years after it’s initial publication), as well as read more about it’s author. Miss Warner never married, and spent her later years living with a retired female nurse. Who was she? I am unsure, but writing this has certainly intrigued me.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede- I can think of only one other series that so heavily influenced what I wanted to be in life (The Wolfspeaker Series by Tamora Pierce). Ms. Wrede writes leading ladies you want to be or at least be friends with. I spent years trying my best to become a cross between Cimorene the Princess of Linderwall and Morwen the Witch. Her women are wise, quick, fierce, brave, funny, and kind. They don’t take “no” for an answer, they instead take what is rightfully theirs. They go on adventures, not even allowing being with child to slow them down. I would still gladly leave this life behind to become the princess of a dragon, especially dragons that defy gender specific titles and love a good dessert. I had a cat named Fiddlesticks for a time, and no better feline has crossed my path since. Hell, I even loved the description of the tiny jars Morwen would put specimens in. I checked out this series so many times from the library that when their copies began to fall apart (no doubt because of me), the librarians saved them and gave them to me to keep forever. Everything about the world is wonderful in it’s most literal sense. The magic is bright and shining and as strange as the world it runs through. The characters are quirky and flawed and animated, the supporting cast is richly realized and zany, the environments absolutely perfect. I would fight an entire class of ten year olds to get another tale about Morwen and Cimorene out of Ms. Wrede.
The Eleventh Hour, Animalia, and The Sign of the Seahorse by Graeme Base- Have you seen Graeme Base’s art? Have you? It is lush with detail, vibrant and rich, it will have you studying a page over and over, the details emerging to reveal clever puns and visual tricks. I can recall hours spent pouring over The Eleventh Hour looking for they myriad of clues that lead to resolution of the tale; who was it that ate the entire feast? If you have a younger child or simply love luscious, detailed art, I cannot recommend his work enough.
The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper- If you haven’t read these books, do yourself a favor and go get them immediately. Published between 1965 and 1977, with two titles having won the Tir na n-Og Award. They are thick with atmosphere and shadows, heady with Welsh, English, and Arthurian lore, and overflowing with beautifully described mysticism. It is about an almost literal struggle of Light and Dark, and carries you through lands so richly described you feel the cold English winter and wind in Wales and sea spray of Cornwall. The beginning of The Dark is Rising (the second book in the series) is so darkly atmospheric it continues to give me chills to this day, and The Grey King retains it’s place as one of my favorite books no matter how many years go by. Will Stanton is a wonderful main character, wise, kind, brave, and patient. The world he lives in is a wonderful balance of the familiar and the magical, and those who remember a time before cell phones and internet will find a home within the walls of the Stanton house, with it’s crackling old radio and warm kitchen and squabbling siblings.
The Song of the Lioness Quartet and The Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce- I’m not sure how to even begin to write of these eight books. How much they influenced me and the things I love and the person I want to be. Full of goddess worship, tangible, spectacular, dangerous magic, mythic beasts, perfectly human characters, and a world so richly imagined I feel as though I spent years living there. I know the streets of Corinth, listened to Numair’s lectures, rode to the City of the Gods. Alana and Daine are two of the strongest characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading about, they are flawed and real and wonderful; they get angry and embarrassed and make mistakes but nothing stops them from achieving their goals. The Song of the Lioness Quartet takes gender rolls and smashes them to pieces right from the get-go. The Immortals Series gives us a lead who literally went mad and ran with wolves. Their stories carry them from city to desert to port town to highest mountain peaks to the lands of the gods, they meet an amazing cast of people who feel just as real as everything else in this world. If you want to read female-centric fantasy that never involves rape or breasts or men who don’t get told they are being stupid when they are, then read these stories. Read them and rejoice in the cast of humans in world that feels like you’ve been there.
The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques. The last entry to this article has possibly the most amount of titles. Mr. Jacques wrote twenty one books for his series and I have read them all. His vivid descriptions and use of dialect often fly in the face of what many schools of writing will tell you, but never once did I feel over burdened by exposition or confused as to what a character was saying (mole speech is a challenge till you read a line of it out loud, then you realize it’s mostly phonetic). My father introduced this series to me by way of Salamdastron, and to this day I’d be hard pressed to say it’s not my favorite, though Mossflower and Mariel of Redwall are both strong contenders. There are equal opportunity heroes here, and while some have argued that the tales follow a formula too closely I would argue that that is why they so consistently enjoyable. You settle into these books like a favorite sweater, all soft and warm and welcoming. You may shed a few tears by the end of the tale, but you will feel filled to the brim with that special sort of contentment a living, breathing story can fill you with. You also might be very hungry, because no one describes feasts like Mr. Jacques did.
There are many other books I could talk about here, and to be honest, I could go on longer about the ones listed above. But those are the earliest and most important, the ones that shaped me and what I would read for the next several years. So, here’s to books and loving them, hope you have a day full of page-turning adventure.