I was an avid reader growing up. Like, super avid. The avidest. Part of it was because my parents thought the library was a fitting substitute for day care. Growing up, my babysitters were Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey. But you know how sometimes you find this book and it completely alters your reality, so that for months and maybe subconsciously years later, you are convinced that dragons and unicorns are absolutely real.
The Farmington Public Library was awesome. It was small, with the children’s section in the basement. I think they remodeled it when I was in middle school, putting a mural in the hallway by the stairs with this awesome three-dimensional leafy tree made of I don’t know what but a motion-activated owl hooted at you from the branches when you walked downstairs and that was pretty great. I attended a book club for precocious young geeks in that basement, and spent a lot of summers on the floor of the YA corner reading the latest Tamora Pierce novel.
I think I was nine when I found Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History. Written by Swedish duo Karin and Paul Johnsgard, the book “describes the anatomy, characteristics, and behavior of these two elusive creatures, traces their relationship with humans, and provides a field identification guide.” I distinctly remember picking it out of the nonfiction section, where it was probably next to something like “How Volcanoes Work” or “Explore the Solar System.”
Being, as I was, in awe of the infallibility of the librarian – I took that nonfiction label very seriously.
Dragons and Unicorns was neither thick nor thin. It was printed on this rough, parchment-like paper, charmingly yellow. The drawings were minimal but detailed, like something you’d find in Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was decidedly not the oversized, Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragonsbook that included on every page a pop-up picture, or shiny touchable “dragon scale” and read “WARNING: for true believers only.” The Johnsgards’ book didn’t beg a nine-year-old to read it.
However, I had just finished C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, was deep into the Unicorns of Balinor series, and was still anxiously anticipating the long delayed sequel in Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles. I had a framed poster of a rearing unicorn above my bed. I. Lost. My. Shit.
THIS IS IT. THIS IS PROOF.
I’ve never found a book that more closely resembled an 18th century text and that utterly convinces you of its authenticity. There are evolutionary trees that show how unicorns evolved from two horns to one. There’s an entire section devoted to explaining why flying dragons actually don’t have forearms. (It would be ridiculous! That’s like having two sets of arms!) And did you know that unicorns become sexually active in the fall, at about three years of age? They have a gestation period of about nine months, similar to humans.
Let me assure you, there is no foreword to this book that says “Just so you know, guys, this book is fiction and dragons and unicorns aren’t real.” There’s no disclaimer written by a well-meaning editor on the copyright page saying “This is a work of fiction and you shouldn’t actually go to the frozen tundras of Canada searching for dragons.”
I actually don’t remember a lot about reading the book, other than I think I renewed it three times and one time read it in the bathtub, where I accidentally tore off a tiny corner of the front cover. The book inspired some elementary fanfiction and more than a few imaginary unicorn rides. I fashioned a horn out of a cheap party hat and put it on my stuffed pony. I sat in my backyard and waited for a unicorn to find me and lay its head in my lap.
Like a lot of things that you obsess over when you’re nine, I eventually forgot about the book. I stopped going down to the children’s section, because no self-respecting preteen would be caught dead in the children’s section. The one time I remembered it, sometime in high school, I went back to look for it but the book was gone, reported missing.
I bought a copy of Dragons and Unicorns off Amazon about a year ago to see if it was as serious as I remembered. Though not disappointed by the content, I was a little disappointed by the fact that I didn’t really believe it anymore. I mean, right, ok, unicorns don’t actually exist, dragons are not roaming northern Siberia, etc. But for a moment – for one really, really long moment – I really wanted to believe that it had all been true. The detailed anatomy, the maps of natural habitats and single sightings…the thing is, a big part of me still wants to be sitting on the rough carpet in the warm light of the children’s basement, with a bookcase to my back, thumbing through Bruce Coville’s latest novel.
Seeing my parents last weekend made me feel like a kid again, for better or for worse. Having a “big girl” job has made it hard for me to read for pleasure and make time for myself. I’m realizing that I’m at the age of the protective bubble of college and temporary internships and being on mom’s health insurance is over. The age of professional responsibilities and long-term consequences and out-of-pocket premiums is beginning. I’m not a “maiden” and the unicorn won’t find me in my third-floor walkup, and that’s the way it is sometimes.
But…sometimes. Sometimes you’ve got to keep believing. And if I ever have kids, you better know that if they ask me if dragons are real, I’m going to say yes.