On Dragons, Mismatched Socks, and Magic Librarians by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
A lot of people have been the new kid. By the time I was in seventh grade, I’d already been a few times (we moved a lot). But up until that point it had always been easy— I’d make friends during recess on the handball court, or in art class, or at Girl Scouts. Moving wasn’t something that intimidated me. Friends had always been easy to come by.
But then we moved to Piedmont.
Piedmont is a small town, and when I was in seventh grade it was overwhelmingly white. Kids who went to Piedmont Middle School came from the same three elementary schools, and even if they had not gone to grade school together, they had all played sports together, and had all gone to sixth grade together.
So when I showed up in seventh grade, groups were already well established. And very few were interested in taking on new members. So for the first time in my thirteen year old life, I found myself very much alone at school lunch. So I instinctively did what many kids had done before me, concurrently to me, and I’m sure after me as well:
I retreated to the library.
The library was safe. It was normal to be alone there. And so I furtively ate my sandwiches while Mrs. Vorhees, the librarian, pretended not to notice me flagrantly breaking the rule against eating in the library. Instead, she attended to whatever secret and silent magic librarians attend to at their desks.
One day I came in to the library, and there was a display of four books on the endcap next to the table where I always sat. They were all in a series together, I could tell from the matching illustrations of a black haired girl standing in various poses with dragons.
Before We Need Diverse Books, the pickings for a hafu kid like me were slim for representation in literature. As a result, I instinctively identified with any black haired female lead, and would just imagine (or, more accurately, decide) that she was like me. And I had never seen a black haired girl with DRAGONS before. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever picked up a fantasy novel before. I was a big Goosebumps / Fear Street / Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark / Calvin and Hobbes only type of reader. I knew what I liked and I didn’t stray from that.
Until that day, when I picked up Dealing With Dragons, the first in Patricia Wrede’s masterful Enchanted Forest Chronicles.
I BLEW through the series. I wasn’t just going to the library to hide the fact I didn’t have friends anymore, I was going there because it was the only place on campus quiet enough that I could read, uninterrupted, until the bell rang. Mrs. Vorhees checked out each book for me without comment. But once I thought I saw a smile of approval.
To this day I don’t know if she placed those books where I sat on purpose. But I do know that it doesn’t matter. She created a space for a mismatched sock like me to come find what would ultimately be one of the most formative series of books I’d ever read.
After The Enchanted Forest Chronicles I became an avid fantasy reader.
And a long time after that, I’d become a fantasy writer. Even longer after that still, I’d become a fantasy author.
And still, nestled in the words I type I can feel the thrum of Patricia Wrede’s enchanted forest echoing. It had never occurred to me that I could inhabit a world with magic and dragons. Fairytale princesses were invariably blonde, or boasted snow white skin. But thanks to Wrede (and Mrs. Vorhees) I was invited to imagine myself in a fairytale. I saw myself in Cimorene, in her black hair, in her refusal to play out the role that had been written for her without her consent. If she could be defiant, then so could I, and later, so could my protagonists.
Without Cimorene, I’m not sure who Evelyn— one of the two leads in The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea— would be. I’m not sure that book would have ever been imagined, if I had not imagined the myself in the enchanted forest, first.
We all know that libraries hold a kind of magic, that many of us discover the portals to our better and happier selves in their walls. So in this way, I know my experience is hardly unique. But it is mine. And it was magic. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, some other mismatched sock will find my book in the library, too. Something tells me that the Mrs. Vorhees of the world will see to it.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author of Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. This is her first novel. She lives in San Francisco.