When I was in fifth grade I got really into dragons. I got into dragons the way some girls get into horses: I had pictures on my walls, read every book I could find in the YA section of the library, drew pictures on all my notebooks, subscribed to catalogues where you could purchase insanely expensive pewter wyverns clutching mystical orbs, you know. The usual stuff. I even kept a journal of my boring tween life—with added dragons. I had a scaly, wingéd, wise-cracking (of course) posse who would follow me around, comment on how boring math class was, etc.
My parents were big fantasy readers, which helped me read my way out of the YA section pretty quickly. My father especially: he has always loved fantasy, the longer and more convoluted/complicated the series the better, and he read a lot because of his constantly needing to travel for work. He brought home oodles of Tor and Ace and Ballantine paperbacks with covers that appealed to me big-time. It’s how I came to read Steven Brust and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and a host of other writers.
Then my uncle Glenn (another fantasy nerd of legend) sent me a box of books, chock-full of dragonish glory. I still remember the day I got off the bus to find the enormous box sitting in the hallway; opening it up and pawing through the loot. I remember, too, which two books stood out to me the most:
It’s probably pretty obvious why I’ve been thinking about that afternoon recently: Darrell K. Sweet and Anne McCaffrey recently passed away. I admit I got a little teary-eyed at the news, both times. Both were incredibly important to me as a young fantasy reader—and a young writer.
Darrell K. Sweet’s artwork captured my imagination before I even realized who he was. His artwork was on the cover of so, so many books I read as a kid and young adult, and my own doodles of dragons were largely inspired by his lizard-faced monsters. He did the covers for the Recluse books as well as Xanth; his image of Gandalf and the Lord of the Eagles graced my cover of The Hobbit. He did the cover for Mercedes Lackey’s The Fire Rose, which I thought was the #1 Top Summer Jam when I read it (okay, I confess … I still have it on the shelf), and he did some covers for Robin McKinley, too. I still love his artwork. They are pure escapist fun, and instantly transport me to other worlds: the bold colors, the stalwart men and women, the reliable horses, the fantasy coaches. The moonlit nightscapes; the golden afternoons in magical woodland realms. They are pictures full of possibility and they ask the important questions, like, say … “Where does this road lead?” “What might we find in that castle across the river?” “Will there be monsters in the craggy snow-capped peaks?” (Yes!) “What wisdom will that dragon offer us?”
And as for Anne McCaffrey … oh my stars. For many years I was firmly convinced Ms. McCaffrey was the greatest writer in the entire goddamn universe. Seriously. I was an unattractive, lonely outcast like so many other nerdy adolescents: I got bullied by awful girls in the locker room and battled the worst acne, lived in an isolated neighborhood without many other kids—let alone ones who shared my interests—and could not dress myself to save my life, which didn’t help the whole “unattractive girl with terrible acne” thing. Her books provided me the escape I needed.
I read most of the Pern books more than once, and obsessively read and re-read the Harper Hall trilogy. Riding the bus, I dreamed of someone coming to take me away from middle school like F’Lar comes for Lessa or T’gran/Masterharper Robinton for Menolly. I spent more than a few hours wondering what color dragon I’d most like to ride, whether I’d rather be a harper with fire lizards or a dragonrider, made klah, etc. I bought The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern with my allowance. I got a perm, because if there is one thing old covers for Anne McCaffrey novels will inspire in a young lass without much fashion sense, it is a love of big hair.
Actually, both McCaffrey and Sweet are equally guilty for inspiring my love of seriously big hair, come to think of it—but, more seriously, they also showed me a lot of exciting possibilities, when I was a young woman searching for her sense of identity. Anne McCaffrey was one of the first, actually maybe the first female author of non-YA SFF books I really got into. She wrote big ol’ fantasy epics, just like the boys, and reading her, it occurred to me that hey, I could do that too! Also, her main characters were often fierce females … and, when they weren’t fierce enough, or too bitchy—or sweet—for my liking, it made me realize I could write the ladies I wanted to see in books. And Sweet’s artwork is rich in warrior babes as well as warrior dudes, which I always appreciated.
Thanks for inspiring my love of ferocious ladies, rich fantasy worlds, and badassery, you two.