Can you remember reading your first novel? I do. As a nine year old in 1979, my fourth grade teacher Mr. Farmer inspired me to do what my parents and all my other teachers had not: Read. Moreover, his class is where I began a life long love of fantasy and science fiction literature with my first three novels: The Dragon Circle by Stephen Krensky, The Drought On ZIAX II by John Morressy, and Star Ka’at World by Andre Norton and Dorothy Madlee.
As I recall, Mr. Farmer warmed up our Cold War bunker of a classroom by putting multi-colored carpet squares atop the stained curling tiles. What a pleasure to have an entire quarter of the classroom filled with a place to sit on the floor. He also brought in a massive yellow painted tractor tire and other exotic items for additional places to sit. He even had us move our desks out of the row by row uniformity into smaller groups of circles to encourage discussion. Who does that with fourth graders? And in 1979? I loved it. We learned in groups but found our own space for reading, on the carpet or the tire or whatever. Reading time was our own space with whatever genre of books that interested us.
At first, I thumbed through books from the American Falls Hillcrest Elementary School media center/library, but browsing did not equal reading. Mr. Farmer remedied my bad habit by having a reading competition which required us to sit with a book from beginning to end. He gave us comic book-sized catalogs from Scholastic Book Services and encouraged us to order our own novels for the competition. He strung wires from the ceiling that were as long as the chalkboard. We then cut out our favorite pictures, pasted them to cardboard, and cut the cardboard to fit the image. I chose a large picture of a star destroyer. I cannot remember where I got the image from, but it stood out from all the other pictures. The chalkboard was then converted into a mock football field with white crepe paper marking the ten yard lines. For every book read, you could advance ten yards. I wanted my star destroyer to move down that wire.
I looked at the pictures in those Scholastic catalogues and found a book about dragons, an alien world, and telepathic cats. Mr. Farmer got me to the first step - wanting to own my own books. I couldn’t wait for them to come. The authors did the rest when the books arrived.
With The Dragon Circle I put myself in the shoes of Perry Wynd, a young boy kidnapped by five dragons and “all of them ferocious, fire-breathing monsters.” Perry was held captive in the dragons cave. Could Perry’s magical family save him? I read on to find out. Even though my first fascination with dragons had come with the animated version of The Hobbit, now my mind got to imagine dragons on my own terms. After The Dragon Circle I eventually graduated to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern.
The Drought On Ziax II fired my imagination even more. A boy named Toren was born in space and had never been to Earth. I couldn’t fathom what that would be like. Toren did not have a water fountain outside his classroom like mine did. In fact, in his schoolroom on Pioneer Base One his water was strictly rationed from a canteen. The natives of Ziax II, the Imbur, could not understand how Earth could have oceans of water. The Pioneers from Earth needed more water, but exploring the bizarre forests of Ziax II put the settlers in danger due to the monstrous Sorks. To this day I can see how this story inspired my eventual fascination with DUNE.
Star Ka’at World introduced me to intelligent cats that could run machines with their thoughts. The Ka’ats, Tiro and Mer, invite Jim and Elly Mae to travel to their world of Zimmorrah. The Ka’ats are telepaths who can talk into Jim and Elly’s minds, and they refer to the Earth children as “cublings.” The action begins when Jim and Elly Mae’s new friends are kidnapped by killer robots. I just had to read the whole book to find out what happened. This Andre Norton children’s book led me to her Witch World series. Furthermore, the telepathic Ka’ats planted the seed for liking books featuring characters with animal bonds, such as R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden who is linked to his magical panther Guenhwyvar or Lyra with her daemon familiar in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.
At the end of the fourth grade competition, I got into the red zone but failed to score a touchdown. No matter. Those first three novels hooked my imagination. By then, winning did not matter. Reading fantasy and science fiction did.