We all have favorite books, the stories that have stayed with us our entire lives. As a writer, though, I have some books that I love to read repeatedly because they are just awesome stories, and then others because I think to myself, “Dang, if I could write like that…” But there is one book the fills both roles, and has since I was very young.
In the third grade, there was a spelling bee in my school. I tied with a boy for first place, which for me, was a pretty big accomplishment. Where I’m pretty well known for my big mouth these days, back then I was actually really quiet and shy. For me to get up in front of people and actually spell words without dying in a puddle of introversion was a big deal. Since there was a tie, the teachers needed to come up with two prizes. They did this by digging into the book order from that month and grabbing two books that we winners were to choose from. Because I was a girl, I got to go first.
Well, the choice was between some pink book and this other book. I remember clearly thinking that the font of the title looked cool, and there was a horse, which automatically made it cool.
Oh, and there was a fire-breathing dragon.
Without hesitation, I grabbed that book. I didn’t even think or feel bad about the other kid, a boy who got stuck with a pink book. I just wanted to get home so I could start start reading.
The book was The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley.
For the rest of the day, I was a little distracted at school. I kept looking at the book, wondering what adventures the boy on the cover would be involved it. Would he kill that dragon? Would the horse be OK (it is standing pretty close to the fire on the cover)?
Finally, we all loaded on to the bus, and I could start reading the book on the way home. I didn’t bother reading the back of it—I devoured books when I was little, and seldom cared what specifically they were about—I just started right in reading it.
“She could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it.”
Wait. She? I looked back at the cover. The character was covered with armor and had a hood. One couldn’t really tell if it was male or female. Maybe…it was a trick. Maybe the book was about a boy but a girl was telling the story. But no. Right at the end of the first chapter were the words, “Lady Aerin, Dragon-Killer.”
After I got of the bus that day, I read the entire book in two sittings, taking a break only to eat my supper.
I grew up surrounded by cousins who lived locally. Many cousins, and at that time, they were all boys. I was so used to playing boys’ games and imagining boy things and being a boy character when we played. I hadn’t really been exposed to many really awesome girls in literature or movies. I’m not sure how many might have existed then who weren’t overly concerned with boys or clothes or hair. This book was a game changer for me.
I was sort of a tom-boy, but still liked girl things, too. And The Hero and the Crown was everything I needed a book to be. Aerin was struggling with people’s perception of her as a witch-woman’s daughter, being, she thought, the black sheep of her royal family. She didn’t feel that she was good at anything, and the book chronicled her journey to self-discovery. She didn’t suddenly have these great powers. She worked hard for what she got, and any abilities she got were the result of great trials. She faced dragons and bad guys, and she found love and respect.
Aside from Aerin instantly becoming a character I loved, I also loved the way Robin McKinley told the story. I felt like I was reading a fairy tale. Most of the novels I’d read at that point seemed “written down,” written for kids. I didn’t like the simplistic language so many of them were written in, which was probably one reason I love reading fairy tales in collections such as Lang’s. McKinley didn’t shrink from using big words and more lyrical language. I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but later understood that I really appreciated that this author respected me as a reader. McKinley doesn’t talk down to her reader. I think this is one reason this book has stood the test of time for me so much, and I reread it all the time. It’s just as good to read as an adult as it is for a youngster.
McKinley also didn’t shy away from subjects that might be taboo in a younger person’s book, possibly because she also didn’t feel the need to smack people over the head with things. When I was little, and I read the part of the book where Aerin is traveling with Luthe, a mage and someone she grew to care for, I remember reading this line:
“My love, I feel it only fair to warn you that I am feeling quite alert and strong tonight, and if you choose to sleep with me again, it is not sleep you will be getting.”
When I was nine years old, I thought, “Hey slumber party!” Maybe they would spend the night talking, maybe he would teach her some more magic. When I was fourteen, however, and read that line that I had read so many times before, it meant something completely different, and it made the parting which came a couple pages later even more heart breaking than I thought before. With every passing year, every re-read, I get something new from this story, and therefore, I never grow tired of reading it.
Aerin’s story challenged me to find other stories like it. Stories where girls don’t have to get rescued by boys, stories where people fall in love, but it’s not because they are beautiful or charmed, but because they themselves are worth loving. And eventually, when I started to write stories of my own, I looked to McKinley’s books as examples of how to not sacrifice the use of language or situations for the sake of reader age. And some day, I hope young readers will look at my work and aspire to be my heroines and I hope I can show that girls can slay dragons and fight evil wizards AND marry the prince. If I can reach one girl and affect her as strongly as McKinley did me when I read The Hero and the Crown, all the solitary hours of writing will have been worth it.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.