Thursday, April 21, 2011

30 Days of Genre - What Was Your Very First Genre Novel?

First off, this is a day later than I wanted it to be, but last night my brain basically stopped functioning and I fell asleep in front of the computer. That's what happens when you burn the candle from both ends all the time. Anyway, enough kvetching. On to Day 1 of the 30 Days of Genre:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Leaving aside nursery rhymes, dumbed down sterilized fairy tales, and picture books, I suppose that The Hobbit (read review) should be considered my first genre novel. When I was eight or so my family moved from Illinois to Washington, D.C. I remember during that summer my father would read me a couple of pages from The Hobbit every night. We didn't even read an entire chapter at a time, just a couple pages. We also didn't make it all the way through the book, although the years have made the memories hazy I think we got to Beorn's Hall before summer ended and we stopped. Fast forward to November of that year, and the Rankin-Bass produced animated version of The Hobbit with voice acting by Orson Bean and John Huston aired, giving me the entire story in broad strokes. The next summer we moved to Tanzania, and everything changed.

When my family moved to Tanzania, the world was still not well-connected. Tanzania was isolated from mass media. There were no television stations, no radio stations, and the only news of the rest of the world that could be gotten was via magazines that arrived at least a month out of date. This was also the best thing that could have possibly happened to me. Because with nothing to distract me and being the new kid in a foreign country, during my fourth grade year I began to plough through books at a prodigious rate. My parents had acquired an array of books from the "Companion Library", a series consisting of a couple dozen volumes with two books per volume, including most of the classics handed to young readers: Tom Sawyer, Toby Tyler, Little Women, Little Men, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi, Hans Brinker, Five Little Peppers, Treasure Island, and so on. Each volume had a front cover on each side, and you flipped the book over to read the second book. This may be the reason I always make sure to have two books with me wherever I go, but I digress. And I started at one end, and over a year worked my way through them. But this collection also included genre type books like Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, King Arthur, Gulliver's Travels, Arabian Knights, and Grimm's Fairy Tales. I suppose if one counts these as genre novels, then one of them would be the first genre novel I actually read. But I would suggest that even though the myth of King Arthur (for example) has inspired dozens of genre novels, I don't know if I would call the compiled stories a genre novel themselves. The book on this list that I would consider to actually be a genre novel would be Gulliver's Travels. So maybe that was my first genre novel.

But maybe not. Because I was blessed with parents who thought this was important, we had lots of books, including two Danny Dunn books - Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine and Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. In the first, Danny and his friends get hold of a computer in their home that they program to do their homework for them (so very science fictiony!), and in the second Professor Bullfinch discovers a paint that, when activated properly, repels gravity. Danny Dunn, of course, accidentally launches the space ship that they are building with the paint and our heroes drift about the solar system trying to get back home. I'm reasonably sure I read these both at some point in this time period, but I have no idea if I read them earlier or later than any of the other books listed here. The same is true of the Henry Winterfield book Castaways in Lilliput, which I also remember reading, but don't remember exactly when. As I said before, the memories as to which books came first are hazy now.

For me, it all comes back to The Hobbit though. My parents acquired the album version of the Rankin-Bass production, narrated by John Huston, and I listened to it all year. To this day John Huston is the voice of fantasy fiction to me. And one night, in the summer between my fourth and fifth grade year, I opened up my father's copy of The Hobbit and began to read. And I didn't stop until the sun began to come up the next day. And I only stopped then because Smaug was dead, the Battle of the Five Armies was over, and Bilbo had come home to the Shire. And even though I knew the outlines of the story by heart, the book captivated me. The song the dwarves sing about the Lonely Mountain had more stanzas, the riddle-contest with Gollum had more riddles, Mirkwood had more dangers, Smaug the Golden was more terrible, the Battle of Five Armies had more strategy (and it had an enraged Beorn to boot). In short, though I had thought I knew the story, only by reading the book did I fall completely in love. And I was hooked. Within a week I had consumed the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, and was looking for more. Before the year was out, I had read The Silmarillion, and then I was on to Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, and before too long, anything by Andre Norton I could get my hands on. And then Asimov, and Heinlein, and Niven, and well, you get the idea.

But it was The Hobbit that started it all.

Go to Day 2: Who Is Your Favorite Character?

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  1. I think mine was A Wind In the Door, by Madelaine L'Engle. But I also read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit around the same time.

  2. @Julia; I read the Chronicles of Narnia pretty early too. I remember that we were still living in Tanzania, so that narrows it down to 1977-1979. I inhaled all of them too. I got some of the Christian allegory, but missed it in some of the stories.

  3. For me, Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara started it all. I read it the year it was released and that started my fascination with fantasy and science fiction.

  4. @Alex: Sword of Shannara is one that I have not read. Which is kind of funny when you think about it. It's always been one of those books I'll get to "in a bit", but just never have.

    I'm sure I'll get to it in a bit.