Thursday, January 15, 2009

Finding Lona

Until a few months ago, I had been obsessed with finding a book I remembered from my childhood; a book that seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. The reason it kept escaping me was fairly simple: I had given it the wrong title. For some reason or other I thought it was called The Princess. Only last year I discovered (with the help of a wonderful librarian) that the book, by that great favorite of mine, Dare Wright, was Lona. However, even then I thought she was wrong and it took several attempts to convince me that yes, Lona, a Fairy Tale is the correct title and although the book is out of print, it can still be purchased or borrowed through interlibrary loan. I was stunned. Imagine all those years spent looking for the wrong book. More disturbing, imagine suddenly finding it. All of my illusions about lost causes, mysterious vanishings, and literary conspiracies meant absolutely nothing. If I’d known the correct title, I could have re-read the book thirty times over. Duh!

The reason this book was so important to me, and still is, starts with forbidden fruit. The first time I came across it--oversized, filled with evocative black-and-white photography and a beautiful princess in a flowing white gown--I was in the book section of a Los Angeles department store. (Yes, department stores sold books! Amazing!) I had never seen anything like it before, and I wanted it as soon as I held it. And my mother said, “No.” Usually, when my mother refused me a book, it meant I would get it for Christmas. Well, not that year or any year after. I begged, pleaded. No Lona ever appeared under the tree. I ended up borrowing the book from a school friend, eventually returning it with great reluctance. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a book more.

Last September and finally armed with the right title, I ordered a library copy from Arizona. The day it arrived I could hardly breathe. It was just as magical as I remembered. So many memories were associated with wanting this book. One thing in particular was that growing up in southern California every day was a sunny day. I hated sunny days. To me, rain and dark skies equaled some mysterious gothic realm that could only be had a few times a year if we were lucky. Lona’s black-and-white illustrations seemed to hold that same “rainy strangeness” that I craved back then. But stronger still, was Lona’s theme that I now realize has crept into much of my own writing: sometimes the Princess has to save the Prince.

Lona is about sacrifice, courage, and a heroine’s journey; Lona is no Sleeping Beauty. She has to struggle to complete her mission only to have the tables turn on her. As a young child, the ending disturbed as much as it inspired me (hint: despite Lona’s great efforts to succeed, instant happiness isn’t a given). Which may very well be why my mother was against purchasing it; for all I know it got bad reviews saying it was subversive and weird; also an accurate description. How else can I explain why I mistakenly thought the common romance genre abbreviation “HEA” stood for “Here Ends All” rather than “Happily Ever After”?

People ask if I’m going to purchase the book now that I’ve found it and know it’s for sale (at anywhere from only eighty to over three hundred dollars a copy.). Hmmm. Maybe my mother was thinking more with her checkbook than anything else. I may have to do the same. Like Lona, for now it’s sustenance enough to keep the goal in sight.

Tip of the Day: What was your favorite book as a child? Why? How has that book influenced you? Experiment with writing something from an adult perspective based on a similar theme.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pick a favorite? You've got to be kidding! However, there was a book that influenced me, and not for the better, alas.

When I was 12 or 13, I got a book called Divers Down! for Christmas. It was a YA science-adventure story. It was set in our modern world, as opposed to my usual diet of SF, fantasy, and classics. As I recall, it was about some kids who spent their summer in a hands-on school of oceanography, where they conducted real marine biology, underwater archeology, and marine engineering research. I really identified with the characters, who were college age. I was capable of doing college-level schoolwork, so they didn't seem very different from me. The book was well written; it was very easy for me to imagine myself living within it and being one of those kids.

That's exactly what YA fiction ought to do. Unfortunately, I took away the wrong message from the book. The right message was, "Wow, what a great story. I should grow up to be a writer, so I can write stories like this for a living." Instead, I got the idea, "Wow, what terrific and exciting lives these researchers lead. I should go into the hard sciences when I grow up, so I can do things like they do in the book for a living." These "things" included dealing with deadly sharks, a Nancy Drew-type mystery, sabotage, and a stolen ancient artifact!

I sought out other books like this one during my teen years, and acquired a, shall we say, skewed perspective on what the life of a research scientist is really like ("Day of the Dolphin," anybody?). My exceedingly romantic view of scientific research, especially marine biology, persisted well into college. Sometime in my junior year I finally figured out that the adventures of a marine biologist character in a YA novel has as much to do with the work of a real marine biologist as a cop show has to do with the lives of real law enforcement officers.

But because this book made such an impression, I spent 8 or 9 years stubbornly trying to force my hexagonal-peg-self into the triangular hole of a marine biologist career. I guess the moral of the story is that while we as authors try to exert an influence on our readers, we may succeed in ways that we never intended.

PS Just looked the book up; it's by Hal Gordon.