I’m cheating when I say that one book turned me into a reader. The first stories I loved were picture books read aloud to me. For a while, my favourite was a library copy of Me Too, Iguana. (Iguana tries so hard to be like everyone else, and finally realizes his plain old self is pretty special.) I also loved it when my dad read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. When I was nine, I discovered Narnia. When I was ten, I read the Prydain Chronicles. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings followed, along with many other fantasy novels.
However, I felt a particular seismic shift in my early teens when I read Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. The world was so immersive, more real somehow than my own reality. Not only that, but the main character was a smart, adventurous girl. The fiery-haired Aerin is an outcast in many ways: her mother is rumoured to have been a “witchwoman,” there are doubts about her legitimacy as daughter to the king, and she doesn’t seem to have the magical gift known as “kelar” that would mark her as royal.
She’s bullied into eating a poisonous plant as a test of her royal blood and survives, but barely. During her long recovery, she reads about ancient dragons that used to terrorize the countryside, and finds a recipe for an ointment that is supposed to resist their fire. She experiments with herbs until she successfully recreates the ointment. She also works hard to gain the trust of her father’s injured warhorse, Talat. I loved her determination and persistence in accomplishing these difficult tasks.
When the Black Dragon is tormenting the village, her father is busy dealing with another threat. So, Aerin slays the dragon herself.
I remember the excitement I felt reading that scene. the rush of adrenaline and the pride that this young woman had achieved the impossible.
When Aerin dreams of a healer who can help her recover, she rides off to find the mysterious Luthe. He heals her by dunking her in the Lake of Dreams, making her something more than mortal. I fell hard for Luthe. I loved their relationship, and I struggled to understand why, later in the book, Aerin chose her kingdom over her heart. But maybe she chose both. Many years later, I’m still ruminating on that.
The Hero and the Crown was the first book that made me truly feel like I was a kick-ass heroine saving the day. As a painfully shy girl, that meant a lot to me. Since I currently write about feisty heroines, I have to believe McKinley played an important role in shaping my imagination. More importantly, by providing her fearless heroines as examples, she helped give me the courage to do something truly scary: share my secret daydreams on the page.
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