One question that virtually every book lover gets asked is the inevitable, “What is your favorite book?” As if it were possible to choose only one book, in the entire universe of books, in all of the galaxies of genre, among all of the stars of narratives. And for those of us who collect books, we know this is a silly question, because why would we need bookshelves if only one book was important to us?
For those who want to start a conversation about books, I would suggest a different question to open: “What is your favorite book from childhood?” This reduces the chances of flustering the person who has too many and shutting down the conversation with the person who cannot choose and has to go away and simmer while he thinks about it. But even better than avoiding awkward dialogue or putting someone on the spot, this question allows you a deeper glimpse into the person you are speaking to.
Books from childhood stay with us in ways that others cannot. Some of them were part of blanket forts or dollhouses, companions for road trips or family tragedies. They were some of the first worlds we opened. And the sights that we saw at that time shaped us, in some obvious ways and in some very subtle ways.
If you asked me, I would tell you that one of my favorite books from my childhood is Saint George and the Dragon, specifically the edition written by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I’ve gotten a goodly amount of raised eyebrows and skeptical looks for my answer throughout my life. A book about a knight slaying a dragon? That hardly sounds like something a little girl would like.
And there you’d be wrong.
On the contrary, it has everything that a little girl could want in a story: bravery, beauty, determination, faithfulness, magic, and love. Not to mention an intense battle with a fire-breathing dragon.
For those who may not be familiar with the story, it is the legend of the Red Cross Knight, Saint George of England. Retold from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the story opens with a noble knight riding across a plain, a princess on a white donkey beside him. The princess, Una, had traveled far to find the knight to save her land. A terrible dragon was laying waste to her country, and while the people ran or shut themselves into the castle, she set out alone to look for a champion.
When they return to her lands, the dragon immediately descends upon them, eager to do battle with the knight. George’s fight is not an easy one. The fight lasts several days, with George and the dragon retreating wounded at the end of each encounter. Mysterious magic heals the knight each night, so when the dawn comes, he is ready to do battle again.
On the third day, George rises to fight the dragon. But the best part? Now the dragon is afraid of him. The knight slays the dragon in a mighty feat of strength and the land is saved. It ends happily, with the promise of George’s further adventures in the service of the Fairy Queen as he earns his title, Saint George of Merry England, always returning to his love Una.
I would marvel at Una’s bravery, cheer for George, worry for him when the battle didn’t seem to be going well, and celebrate when the evil serpent was slain each time. And all the while, I never thought that it wasn’t proper for a girl to read. I went on to read tales of King Arthur’s knights and so many other grand adventures, finding characters who reflected what I wanted to be. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be a champion for goodness and life. I wanted to be a person who could see magic in everyday life.
I know that this book is a core part of who I am, and it will always have a treasured space on my bookshelf. It has shaped how I see the world, and it inspired a love of reading that I will enjoy all of my life. Some may find it odd that I sometimes identify more with male characters or gravitate towards books that are not what girls are “supposed” to like, but I learned a long time ago that books aren’t written just for girls, or just for boys, but for readers. Our favorites call to us in different ways, speak to us at different times in our lives, and teach us about ourselves. So read widely, my friends, and find the characters that reflect who you want to be. Let them teach you how to slay dragons.
One of the beautiful illustrations from Trina Shart Hyman