This piece was originally published on 21 September 2018 at the SELCIE blog as part of their #GrowingUpWithBooks project.
In today’s blogpost, Michelle Anjirbag shares a personal reflection about childhood ‘reading memories’ — the particular stories which have had a formative and longlasting influence, shaping who she was then and now….
My PhD might be on Disney and fairy tale adaptations now, but the princess I looked up to when I was younger (and still, now) was never found on the shelves of one of their stores, or in their animated films. I was about seven years old when I found the blue and grey and black hardcover books in my elementary school library: Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Inside their pages I met my earliest role models that didn’t walk out of folklore or history books: Princess Cimorene and King Kazul. Most of all I learned the one set of skills that has remained important throughout my life: how to deal with dragons. But more on that later.
The series is comprised of four books: Dealing with Dragons (1990), Searching for Dragons (1991), Calling on Dragons (1993), and Talking to Dragons (1985). Though it is now the last book in the series, Talking to Dragons was originally written as a standalone, and was followed up by the short story “The Improper Princess” in the Jane Yolen edited Spaceships and Spells collection — which then became the first 27 or so pages of Dealing with Dragons.
Cimorene was a princess who fenced, and who didn’t want to do what princesses were somehow meant to do, like learn the appropriate volume to scream when kidnapped by giants. She ran away to avoid an arranged marriage, sure, but at the same time, she found herself through being practical and useful, and using her mind no matter what people thought she ought to do. But, because I started with what is now thought of as the last book, I met Cimorene as a grown woman first. She was, in Wrede’s own words “strong, smart, self-assured, practical, curious, and willing to take on and solve all sorts of problems” (Wrede, iii).
Something about that resonated with me — it could have been the influence of a solidly New England upbringing where we’re taught to just get on with what’s needed, or a bit of the home my mom built, where pursuit of knowledge and skills were celebrated and there was no breakdown of gendered tasks. Likewise, the idea of a dragon kingdom where “King” was merely a job title and had nothing to do with gender, and where the king was practical and not just aloof and wise, or somehow evil or misunderstood, appealed to me. Either way, as a child with no concept of what a twisted fairy tale was, I really enjoyed the way Wrede played with tropes about princess, dragons, and the rules of fairy tales. It was fun to be able to pick through things and recognize them, especially as I read more vastly and returned to the books at different stages of my life.
Beyond Cimorene, though, I loved Kazul. She was the king; she ruled. She became the king of the dragons not because it was handed to her, but because, despite adverse situations, she proved herself. She was incredibly intelligent, she knew a bit of everything and had a library and treasure room too big to bother cataloguing herself. She recognized the value of others, the potential of someone who didn’t quite fit in. She knew her own mind and wasn’t apologetic about it; in short, she, too, reminded me of the kind of women who were in my life — as older generations of teachers, and community service coordinators, swimming instructors, and Girl Scout troop leaders — and who I could see pieces of my future self in. Women who got on with the business of living and leading and didn’t pay any mind to what they should or shouldn’t be able to do. They were doting grandmothers, stern taskmasters when necessary, and could do everything from bake and garden to manage carpentry and roofing and plumbing issues themselves if needed. They were resilient, they thrived both in the cold grey winters and the baking, basking summers of New England. And yes, in many ways, they dealt with dragons — if they weren’t the dragons themselves. I was lucky to find them both on and outside the pages; these women left their mark on a young girl, and I became stronger for it, and had that strength affirmed in both my internal and external life.
Looking back on this series now, I’m happy to be able to still enjoy them, if not in the exact same way. Of course, now I know all of the references and all the tropes being played with. I have the knowledge to problematise the ways in which gender dynamics are not completely disrupted across the narrative, but also the knowledge to understand the nuanced space within which this kind of narrative still operates. I know at what point I’d like to see more of the narrative expanded in different ways, or interrogated. I know that we’ve both moved on from and need more of these sorts of stories.
But despite what I know, or think I might know, there still remains the wonder of discovery, the joy of growing up — and continuing to grow up — with books. The covers might have changed, and I might read deeper, but the only thing that has truly changed, is me. But nevertheless, I still see the threads of the woman I hoped I’d one day grow into in these books: self-assured, intelligent, eager to learn, capable, passionate, and fearless, and ready to push back against the wrongs and injustices of the world in a way that is fair and just. And thankfully, I continued to grow up with books — and with people — that never told me that this would be impossible.
Which leads us back to the beginning: learning how to deal with dragons. My positionality in any of the fields that I’ve worked in — be it academia, specialty running, outdoor education, or hyperlocal journalism — means that I hear “no” a lot. I hear “you can’t”, “you’re not supposed to”, and “someone like you shouldn’t” or “someone like you can’t”, or perhaps the most telling: “someone like you should be more careful” about what I think or feel and how and how loudly I say it. I hear about the ceilings I will hit, and how much harder I will have to work — and I see it in the lives and the careers of the women who have gone before me. But importantly, I see women who meet the noes, the cannots, and the nevers, and pressed on. They answer them with “so whats?”, and “I wills”.
Because they do these things — and because writers like Patricia C. Wrede and her generation of female fantasists dared to imagine women who were indomitable, who ruled as kings, who were themselves the wise dragons and witchy women filled with strength and curiosity — I can sit at the University of Cambridge as an ethnic-religious minority woman, eldest child of an immigrant single mother, on the opposite side of the ocean from home. And sitting here, I can not only imagine the ways in which we can be better, but I know I have the will and the strength to be part of the process of getting there.
Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Book One (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 1990).
Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Having earned her MSc at the University of Edinburgh and her BA at the University of Connecticut, her research interests include adaptations of fairy tales and cross-period approaches to narrative transmission across cultures and societies, and her current research is on depictions of diversity in Disney’s fairy tale adaptations from 1989 through the present.