Take my hand, dear reader, and let’s take a leisurely stroll down Nostalgia Lane to revisit our roots. The “we” in the “our” is us: nerds, geeks, genre fans. And our roots are the beginnings, those first books or games or sites or images we stumbled upon as children that started the itch, that itch for the fantastic that leads some people to—as adults—spend thousands of dollars cosplaying at Comic Con while others look on in bemused confusion.
I am the person I am today because of the books I read as a child. This is a fact I am absolutely sure of and something I can plot the course of my life by. For me, this can be seen in the general and specific: I work at Tor because for my entire life, my personal bookshelves have been stamped with the little mountain top logo and when I turned my eyes to publishing, there was only one company that sprung to mind. But also on the broad scale, I will always pause by the fairy tchotchkes in truck stops and make a beeline for the genre section in any bookstore, likely until the day I die. F/SF is in my bones.
I know exactly when, where, and how this started. I was ten and in fourth grade at Stratford Elementary on Riverside Road in Alexandria, Virginia. More specifically, I was in the far back left corner of the library, looking at the shelf second from the bottom. I was supposed to be picking out a chapter book for my very first book report and what caught my eye that day changed my life. See, some girls like horses and some girls like princesses; I was lost the day I saw the dragon on the cover of Laurence Yep’s Dragon Cauldron. Bag and tag it: a nerd was born.
My teacher, a kind woman named Mrs. Brown who, upon reflection as an adult, I’m not exactly confident was all that good at her job, discouraged my choice when I showed it to her for approval. “It’s too long for you,” were her words. Fortunately, that was enough to make a stubborn kid dig in her heels and refuse to budge. What Mrs. Brown should have pointed out was that Cauldron is the third in a series and I should probably start with the first book. Alas, this fact went unnoticed by all and so I was in for a very confusing time. But I was obstinate and didn’t want to admit I was in over my head so I read the first chapter three times and then soldiered on, hoping it would all make sense at some point. Eventually it did. And it was beautiful.
In case you are unfamiliar, let me tell you a little bit about Laurence Yep’s Dragon Quartet. In the series opener, Dragon of the Lost Sea, you meet Shimmer, the sassy, brave, and most of all, desperate dragon princess whose home has been stolen by an evil witch named Civet who now holds the sea locked in a small blue pebble. In that book, Shimmer picks up a boy named Thorn, a member of that well-worn and much beloved trope of the abused orphan whose kindness and spirit can never be stamped out. The quest to restore Shimmer and her kingdom stretches across four novels and involves the additions of a blue-haired slave, the reformed witch, and a talking monkey with a magical staff. Yep borrows from Chinese folklore, most clearly in his adaption of the Monkey King legend, but also in the general geography and society of the world.
Now for the squee: let me tell you why these books are awesome. First, underwater dragon kingdoms. Yes, you heard me right. Imagine dragons swimming gracefully through waves of bioluminescent plankton as they journey home to a palace at the bottom of the sea. Imagine massive wings breaking the surf as they rise into the sky, for the dragons are as at home in air as they are in water. I was a kid raised on Disney and therefore well familiar with castles—castles in forests and deserts and overlooking quaint romanticized villages. Castles where princesses look placidly out of stained glass windows at knights who ride across draw bridges. King Triton’s palace, therefore, in The Little Mermaid was always my favorite: exotic, magical, not to mention how cool it was to see mermaids swimming all over it. Yep’s version is even more grand: treasure vaults and grand ball rooms, fields of seaweed and coral taking the place of rose gardens and hedge mazes—and dragons.
To state a cliché: the visuals in these books set my imagination ablaze. I can still recall the sense of gleeful wonder I felt when I read those descriptions for the first time. That moment is one of my favorite things of being a genre fan. I felt it when I journeyed with the Fellowship to the forest of Lothlórien; when I was on the boat with Harry, seeing Hogwarts for the first time; when I hovered over the shoulder of Phedre as she entered the temple that housed The Name of God—these are the moments that give you shivers, the moments that you stop and re-read because goddamn was that awesome. They are the moments you want to bottle and keep on a shelf.
Moving on, within the exquisite world Yep drew are dragons and to this day, they remain my favorite depiction of the trope. These are not your brainless overgrown lizards roaring fire, nor are they your treasure-hoarding isolationists. These are societal beings with complex community dynamics, political hierarchies, and dynastic histories—which brings me to my next point of what there is to love about genre fiction for children: convoluted adult concepts can be dressed up with magic and acted out by fantastical creatures and the next thing you know, your ten-year-old understands what a dauphine is. Social cues and interpersonal conflicts can be demonstrated by a band of dwarves hunting for mythical diamonds and lessons will be learned nevertheless. Having the context be so far removed from reality helps children apply the messages and morals to real life situations by stripping them of any specific box or situation: in short, fairy tales have fairies for a reason.
Yep’s series taught me about power struggles amongst factions, about the callous cruelty that runs rampant when “otherness” is present, about madness and the terrifying possibilities when it holds command, about jealousy, about the awful power of baseless hope and faith without foundation. It taught me about group dynamics and what is required to make friendships function and maintain them. And also, it taught me about loyalty. Loyalty is often one of the most significant themes in narrative fiction and in genre fiction in particular. Love can be too complicated and revenge too simple; hate can be too petty and stupidity too frustrating. But loyalty, loyalty is the coverall perfect motivator. You can be loyal to a king, a land, a lover, a friend, a dog, a god, an ideal, a memory—and as a kid there are few more important lessons.
Loyalty is altruistic and teaches one to connect with something outside the self. Children are inherently selfish; internalizing the concepts of “I” and “Mine” is an integral building block to consciousness and self-actualization. But the best kids are those who don’t linger on that step for long, the ones who know to share and empathize. This is why loyalty in particular is such a common theme in children’s fiction: it’s important, simple, powerful—and integral to making non-shitty adults.
The Dragon Quartet featured loyalty that developed and matured, loyalty that changed as circumstances did and that adapted to new characters and roles. Those books taught me a lot about how to be a good friend, about how jealousy will happen and that pushing such feelings aside is to be admired. They taught me about promises and their significance, about competing powers of forgiveness and bitterness—and did it all through the relationships of a dragon, a monkey, an orphan, a slave, and a witch.
So this is a sketch of not only what the Dragon Quartet did for me, but what makes genre fiction such a powerful force with children who are just starting to intellectualize their world. Dragon Cauldron started me on a path that now has me sitting at a desk, working for the company that still publishes Laurence Yep. But more importantly, it started me on a path to becoming the moral and thoughtful adult I am today who still gets her thrills from genre books. So thank you, Mr. Yep—sincerely, a fan.
Stay alert: the next stop on the Memory Lane Train will be The Golden Compass, book 1 of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, wherein I discuss why I will forever feel cheated because my soul is not anthropomorphized outside of my body as my own spirit animal companion.
Leah Withers is an Associate Publicist at Tor Books who hails from Northern Virginia, by way of Texas. Sometimes she feels so funky she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Damn, that’s funky.