The other day, the Skiffy and Fanty podcast asked on Twitter what work of fantasy we read as children got us into the genre.
I had to really think about that. I know I read fantasy books from a very early age, starting with fairy tales and moving on to various chapter books. I know I liked books that had magic, witches, ghosts, traveling to other worlds, talking animals, and that sort of thing. I definitely went through a “witch” phase in second grade, probably because Bewitched reruns ran every evening after the news on one of our local stations, and it was mandatory viewing among all the girls in my neighborhood. I went through the library looking for any book with the word “witch” or “magic” in the title. I know I read The Horse and His Boy, from the Chronicles of Narnia, sometime in second or third grade because I was in a horse phase and went through the library checking out every book with the word “horse” in the title or a picture of a horse on the cover. I read The Hobbit in fourth grade because our teacher was reading it out loud to the class every day after recess, a chapter at a time, and I got impatient with that, got the book from the library, and read the whole thing. I read a lot of the Oz books during this time, as well.
But it didn’t occur to me that this was a particular type of book, that this was a type of book I liked, and that I wanted to find more books of this type. There were topics I liked, but I didn’t think of putting all the topics together into categories. I just liked books, period. I was the same way with mysteries. I loved them, particularly the various mystery series that were written for girls, like Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Cherry Ames. I did recognize that these were series because they were all about the same character, but I didn’t think in terms of them all fitting into the same category.
I think I first discovered genre in science fiction. I’d read books about spaceships, robots, and aliens before, but I didn’t think of them as a “genre.” Then I saw Star Wars early in fourth grade and became utterly obsessed. I re-read the novelization dozens of times, then my parents gave me one of Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx books (not knowing Foster wrote the Star Wars novelization, so they had no idea how good a transition that really was), telling me it was a similar kind of story and I might like it if I liked Star Wars, and I started to be aware that there was a category of books like that, so I looked for more science fiction.
Early in sixth grade, for some reason I don’t quite recall, I had to meet up with my mother at her office after school. I felt very grown-up catching the shuttle bus from the neighborhood where my school was to the part of the base where my mom’s office was. I had to wait at the office until my mom got off work, and she’d bought a book for me to read to pass the time: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. I was totally and utterly captivated. That book contains all the elements that to this day are my literary catnip. It was a portal fantasy, in which kids from our world got sent to a magical fairy tale-like world. It was a quest story, so our characters were on an epic road trip with a serious goal at the end. They ran into fantastic creatures and got into and out of scrapes. The two kids barely knew each other at the beginning but were friends by the end. A fun twist that I didn’t realize was a fun twist at the time was that they weren’t rescuing a damsel in distress. It was a prince who was in distress. After I read that book, I wanted more like that. I read the rest of the series, hopelessly out of order, and realized that the “horse” book I’d read when I was younger was part of it, but as obsessed as I became with Narnia, what I really wanted was more books like The Silver Chair, and the rest of the series wasn’t quite it. That’s how I discovered that fantasy was a genre, and I could find more books with no connection to each other but that still had these elements I liked. I went from there to The Lord of the Rings and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. I got back into the Oz books, now reading them specifically as fantasy.
I think I was at a prime age and in a prime location for discovering fantasy. At 11, I wanted adventure and magic, but I was just starting to be aware of romance and liked that many fantasy books had that element, but always secondary to the adventure. These books were like the fairy tales I’d enjoyed as a small child, but with more going on. Meanwhile, we were living in Germany at the time, where there was a castle on top of just about every hill. Our weekend-afternoon walks were to the ruined castle on top of the hill that overlooked our neighborhood. This made it so easy to imagine the fantasy worlds and even easier to imagine stepping through a portal in one of those castle walls to find myself in another time and place.
Come to think of it, the book I’m working on now may as well be my Silver Chair. We’ve got a pair of young people who barely know each other traveling to another world where they have a serious mission to carry out, and they’re friends after going through adventures together. I really can’t get enough of this kind of story.