In theory, I was once a child. In practice, I sometimes doubt it.
I don't remember a great deal of my childhood, and whole years of my adolescence have melted into a blunt white fog. Years of chronic insomnia can do that to a person. So there's a lot about my early literacy experiences I don't remember. I know my mother read picture books to me often as a boy, though I don't remember many other than "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," a conglomeration of Seussness, and some strange Sesame Street book with write-your-own text and staring my cousin and me, which my parents bought for my birthday (I think). Later on, I dimly recall either being read or reading or both the Hardy Boys books, The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynn Reid Banks, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. This gives me a nebulous sense of being a reader earlier than I can clearly remember being anything.
I don't know if it's the fogginess or some reflection of how things really were, but I don't recall any story ever Changing Things as an early child. I assume I liked books because I know I read them, but honestly, nothing changed the way I viewed the world--changed me--enough for the metamorphosis to linger until today. Not until I reached fourth grade when two books Changed Things.
This Change happened in two phases. The first, subtle, like the cracking open of a newly found door to someplace Elsewhere and Unknown, came thanks to another book by Banks, The Farthest Away Mountain. This book introduced me to a new story that felt very old and classic, written in the style and with the substance of a fairy tale. That tenor of fantasy that runs through much high or epic fantasy as well as through fables and fairy tales still resonates with me, and before this book I suspect I was unaware that new stories could feel like the great old classic stories. Perhaps of greater importance, however, this book made me care more about a story before and behind the story than the book itself. To this day my favorite part of The Farthest Away Mountain is a story told inside the story, about a good magician and his evil apprentice, and how the magician tried to save the apprentice by taking him to a blessed mountain, yet the apprentice's evil overpowered all the good, damning the mountain and all near it. That story is told in dialogue and not shown, and covers maybe a page and a half of text--but it Changed Things. Something about that scrap of the past within a book created a real world not only to read about but to imagine, to explore, even to recreate in my own mind. That story become much bigger than others because of what I did not know and what was not said, and created a voracious appetite to fill in these gaps.
The first Change was an expansion of my world, a swelling, sweeping growth of horizon. The second Change was far more potent. Like moving from a black and white world, both shallow and neatly beautiful in its simplicity, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle washed the world in which I lived in color, raw and vibrant and thrilling and terrifying. It made life frighteningly real.
It is one of my childhood memories I remember best. Not turning pages or the cover of the book or telling my parents or friends about the story. The feeling. That book Changed Things, and I knew it the moment I closed the cover and never stopped knowing it. For days afterward, I thought about that story. It possessed me. It made me care, made me feel things, some that I wished afterward I could stop feeling. The story was exciting, and funny, and unique, and fantastic, but it was also tragic, and sad, and haunting, and refused to offer even an immortal unicorn a simple happy ending. It made me ache for the people--not characters, but people--in that story. Physically hurt for them. At night that story sang to me instead of letting me sleep. The Last Unicorn combined the resonance of truth I always have and still do feel about a perfect fable with an emotional and moral complexity that defied an absolute answer. The story was beautiful in its joy and in its sadness, and impossibly real for being beautiful for both. I wasn't the same after reading that story, and I couldn't go back--even though I sometimes wanted to.
After several days the disturbance faded and the Changed world settled into its new form and place. I suppose the reality is I settled into the newly enlightened me. It's hard for me to splice together words to communicate anything at all of this great shift, but the best way I can say it is this: I was a little less a child after having read The Last Unicorn, but the portion of that child-like me that remained was so empowered by the experience it has never left. That book cost me a few beliefs and instilled many more with adamantine strength.
To this day there is no book I love more than The Last Unicorn. My own writing--completely unforeseen and unaspired to by that forth grade boy--has only deepened my admiration for Peter Beagle and his story. It is a masterpiece of composition, from the sentence level to its greatest themes. Yet it is one of the only books I can read today and be so caught up in I do not notice the masterful skill of the hands leading me on. I can just ride along. It probably played a greater role in my writing than any other book, not because it shaped how I write, or even what I read. It Changed the way I see life, and I will always be thankful for it.
Mette's Life Changing Book