It’s a new year and people are out there foolishly looking to the future. Resolutions are rolling as if January has a reservoir of self-determination that’s depleted by mid February. But I like to play the contrarian and do something different when the new year comes in. I like to take a look into my past, see where I am and where I came from. It’s not nearly as dramatic a practice as making promises only a future version of yourself has to deliver on, but it lets the future you (now) wave hello to your past and get a bit of perspective.
And with that introduction I’m starting the first in a series of Things that Made Me. Things get a bit hazy when looking back into childhood. Events and people are all disproportionate, due both to a change in physical as well as mental perspective, but certain pillars stand tall. These formative parts of my childhood have remained pieces of me today. Some things have come and gone. I loved Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters, eschewing Thundercats and G.I. Joe. These things have nearly nothing to do with who I am today. There are chinks in the “what you like, not what you are like” posit. Sometimes it’s true, but only when the things you like become part of you. Sure, I have some nostalgia for the turtles, but I’ve shed most of the emotional connection they had for me. I do love the first movie, but that’s because I watched it relatively recently and it has some gorgeous cinematography and the movie simply looks great.
But this isn’t a series about what I’m sort of into or what I no longer care about. This is about those pillars that stand out through memory as the media structures that have put me where I am today. And the first is a book.
I was addicted to books as a child. I still am. When I went out to restaurants I would bring three novels with me. One that I was reading, one to start in case I finished the first, and a third in case I wasn’t in the mood for that second book. During Friday night Shabbat services I would sneak in book after book and only after much hidden reading was I eventually allowed to hide my novel inside the prayer-book and read during the sermon. I really, really, really liked to read.
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher may not have been most critically acclaimed book I read as a child. It might not even have been the best book by Bruce Coville that I devoured, of which there were many. Without a doubt it was the most important. What is special about this book is that it had the first world that I wanted to enter. I remember Mr. Elives’ Magic Shop appearing out of the mist down that side road that was never there before. I remember the sense of power that came from the secret Jeremy had that was his dragon. I remember wanting more than anything to have the same kind of empathetic bond they shared, of finding a magic shop that had some ancient artifact that had been sitting on a shelf for decades just for me. And I remember the sense of loss I shared with Jeremy when his dragon (Tiamat, I didn’t even have to look it up though it’s been ages since I’ve last read it) had to leave him. And just as important as all of that, I remember the sense of joy that their connection was never broken by distance and that Jeremy emerges from his story as a better person with a bit of magic inside that will never leave him.
Other books up until then had taken me over with their stories. But with this book I was knocked off of a ledge into an ocean that I never knew existed. I’d come across stories that were funny or thrilling, and even ones that had created a sense of yearning. This was a wave rather than a story. Until I came across the Magic Shop the feelings of desire had a tinge of jealousy, of seeing something someone else had and wanting it too because it was cool. But everything I came across in the book showed me a hole inside that had room for magic, and followed up that ache with a vision of how to find said magic.
I’m barely talking about the plot because the plot was simple and good enough to carry me through the book. I can recall the generalities of it, but that was never what was important. What was important was the hunger it created inside of me. It didn’t just entertain me; it changed me. I didn’t just want to get to the next page or the next chapter, I wanted to find another moment. I started looking for new streets in my neighborhood after reading this book. I’d wander around and try to get lost. Sometimes I did, but the roads were always residential and I never found a hidden shop of oddities. After Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher mist and fog would trigger pangs of longing. Sometimes this would happen years later, after I had forgotten the connection between the precipitation and the book. I’d be sitting in the passenger seat of a car and we’d drive through a patch of fog and suddenly I’d want the driver to take a right turn and just see what was down that road.
Even today, when there’s a book or a movie that builds a world I want to visit, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher is the tray that it’s served on. I would give nearly anything to study at Breakbill’s Academy, and I’m now sure that Mr. Elives is a graduate of said school. Neverwhere, Star Trek, and even Wellsville where the brothers Pete lived, all made me want to experience another world and they all felt like some degree of when I read this book.
It was part of a loose series, connected mainly by Mr. Elives’ Magic Shop, with each book following a person who discovers it (or is chosen by it) and what they find and how it changes their life. It was my first foray into a real fandom, I supposed. There were franchises I had liked, and even loved, before and after but this was the first that I needed. I’m not sure why this particular text resonated with me so strongly, but it did. I guess that makes this novel my artifact on the shelf, waiting for me.