This is the second part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here and Part 1 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
One of the earliest fairy tale books I remember checking out from the library was East of the Sun & West of the Moon written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. It’s an old fairy tale and there have been different adaptations of it, most of which involve a polar bear. (One of my favorite alternate movie adaptations is the Norwegian film The Polar Bear King.) I cannot tell you how gorgeous the illustrations are, and they’ve stuck with me my whole life. Even when I forgot the title, I remembered those pictures. The girl sitting by a pond, a unicorn in the forest, the goat with the corkscrew horns, the giant green fish with scales like mirrors, the prince’s icy prison, and the evil troll queen with a wooden arrow in her heart. The beauty of these illustrations transported me into a rich, living fantasy world and have influenced my mental imagery of fantasy works ever since. It also, for a time, made me want to become an illustrator for children’s storybooks. (Each of the illustrations in Mercer Mayer’s books are done in watercolor. Watercolor! His rendition of Beauty and the Beast is equally breath-taking.) I’d searched on and off for this book for years, but my efforts were frustrated by not remembering anything except those illustrations. But recently, I stumbled across it by chance on the internet, found the title, and ordered a copy.
Another delicacy from my childhood is the book Maia: A Dinosaur Grows Up written by John R. Horner and James Gordon, and illustrated by Doug Henderson. (I think you’re supposed to pronounce it “MY-ah” but I always said “mah-EE-ah.”) As a child, I loved dinosaurs and, between this book and The Land Before Time, I was convinced that all animals, but especially the scaly kind, can and do have thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, and desires just like human. The anthropomorphism of animal behaviors continued through the rest of my childhood, and persists in some form, even to this day.
The book covers the fictional life of a young Maiasaur called Maia, from her hatching through various stages and events in her development, to when she’s an adult and has hatchlings of her own. The illustrations are smooth and beautifully detailed, and I recall it being simple enough for me to read at a young age without that condescending tone that some books take with children. Unlike East of the Sun, this book’s title I remembered, although I have yet to locate a copy for myself. The idea of following an individual from birth to adulthood (or beyond) was first presented to me here, and, ever since I have been interested in reading those kinds of stories, if they pertain to animals. (For some reason, I was never drawn to do the same for human characters, perhaps because human lives take much longer and I always found humans to be a more boring species that horses or dinosaurs.)
I can’t recall exactly when I read this next book…probably also when I was seven or eight. Actually, I didn’t read it; I listened to it. My dad used to listen to a lot of audio-books, something that never really caught on with me, and still hasn’t. But I do remember listening to this one: This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti. It’s actually Christian fiction, but it reads a lot like a fantasy, full of epic battles, near escapes, heroes, victims, and traitors. My brothers and I actually curled up together around the cassette player listening to a tale of demons and angels battling for the possession of the very souls of the people in a small, isolated town.
I’m not Christian anymore, but it still sends chills down my spine at the thought of demons and angels literally perching on my shoulders and influencing my actions. Of course, the key word here is “influence,” not “control.” Free will and the power of prayer and choice is highly emphasized, which is a good message, in my opinion. Barring sociopaths, we all have a conscience that reminds us when we are doing something bad, and can take action accordingly. For a long time, this book had me “scared straight,” as it were. It really made me think that there is a lot going on beyond our perception, that forces play at levels and for stakes far beyond anything I could imagine. I don’t know if the book will hold up to my adult scrutiny, but nevertheless, it still left its mark.
The common thread of these three books is that each left very vivid visual impressions of worlds that dove deep into my psyche and stayed. I recall them with great fondness, particularly the first two. Their effects are much more subtle, I think, less easily traceable, but no less powerful. Are there any books like these from your childhood?