Tuesday questions, City of Wu edition

All I could remember was an illustration.  It featured an old man transforming into a dragon.

I couldn’t remember the plot very well, other than it involved an old man turning into a dragon.  I couldn’t remember any of the characters, and I didn’t recall any of the other pictures.  What memory I had of the book was limited to one picture, and a sense that I had loved it as a small child.

When the memory emerged during my adulthood or why, I cannot remember either.  Suffice it to say that into my mind drifted a hazy picture of an old man transforming into a dragon, accompanied by a longing to find the book again.  The longing was strong enough that, when I happened to find myself in book stores with children’s books, I would see if I could find one about an old man turning into a dragon.  I would ask the workers in the children’s sections if they’d ever heard of such a book, but invariably these conversations took place in gigantic stores with helpful but inexpert staff who had no idea what I was talking about.

I suspected that the picture was really just the memory of a particularly plangent childhood dream.

Then one day I entered a bookstore for children in the city where I was living at the time.  I had been past it several times, but had never been moved to go in.  And that day, on a whim, I decided to go in and ask.

In keeping with the theme of this post, I don’t remember the woman who greeted me that well.  She was middle-aged, if memory serves.  She was very friendly, as one would expect for a children’s bookstore.  I sheepishly asked if she’d ever heard about a book I’d been looking for, the name of which I’d forgotten and the existence of which I couldn’t confirm, about an old man who turns into a dragon.

“Oh,” she said.  “You must mean ‘Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like.”  In a matter of a few seconds, she had ducked around a bookshelf and returned with it in her hands.

It was the book I remembered.  There, toward the back, was the very picture from my memory.  An old man leaps into the air and transforms into a magnificent dragon.  Along with that picture were many, many others, once lost and immediately familiar again.

The memory of that moment fills me with joy even as I write this.  Whoever that woman was, she will probably never know how her simple familiarity with a wonderful children’s book made one guy for a brief minute the happiest person on the face of the earth.  I don’t know what about its magic made me love it so much as a child that it lingered so long in my subconscious, but linger it did and I loved it all over again when I finally found it.

It is a charming and delightful story, a spin on the notion of not judging people’s worth based on how they look.  It is subtly witty and (as noted) gloriously illustrated.  For children who can tolerate a little bit of threatened violence (the dragon shows up to defend a city against a rampaging horde of marauders), it’s a gem.  My son (who adores books) was for a time prone to proclaiming “The enemy is coming” like the messenger who comes running to warn the Mandarin in the tale.  I hope he will love it for the rest of his life, too.

So that’s this week’s Question — what treasured thing have you lost and found?  What have you rediscovered under the buried layers of time?  What called out just loudly enough to make you look for it again?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. A few years ago I recalled that Roald Dahl wrote a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    Except my memory had been very badly fucked with, because I remembered that the plot was completely insane.

    There were space aliens. And lots of death. It was horrifying. And the Bucket family met the president.

    Turns out that my memory was in perfectly good order. The book really was that crazy.

    • It was dreadful. Maybe the worst sequel ever after Sweet Thursday,

      • I think my fifth or sixth grade teacher read it aloud to us, right after “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” (It’s “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” right?) I don’t recall thinking it was crazy, but I was 10 so what the hell did I know?

        One thing that seems clear to me from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is that perhaps Roald Dahl didn’t totally love children.

        • And yet, still and above, he’s a far better read than Hans Christen Anderson, whose morals are entirely too Christian for my taste.

          • Perhaps the middle name was a tip-off?

            And I don’t think one has to be a lover of children to write great children’s books. C. S. Lewis did not care for small children (something he readily admitted, and considered a character flaw), and I love his Narnia books abundantly. (I suspect you’d find their moral too Christian, too. However, the evangelicals who tout him based solely on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” miss the much more expansive theology of the others.)

          • The trick is that children often are not “lovers of children” in any universal sense, and so they appreciate meeting an equivalent sensibility in their literature.

          • I think understanding children is far more important than loving children when it comes to writing truly great children’s literature.

          • Russ,
            Oh no, I quite like Lewis’ books (though, as a child, I missed the christianity parallels)… it’s the relentless suffering of children (and praising of such) that bothers me with Andersen.

            It’s not that I particularly mind downer endings, but I think they work better with a bit older of a target audience.

  2. there was an old (late 70s) series of sesame street books that my wife found in her parents’ house that my son adores. it not only helps remind me that sesame st. was once not totally lousy and told actual stories to kids rather than just smacking them in the face with complete platitudes, but i was shocked at how much i remembered reading these books when i was very little.

    the inking, the mixed style of printing (taken from older and newer sources, and not entirely coherent) and the really crazy, heavily glossy, super bright lens flare laden photography. pings all sorts of weird bits of my brain.

    you should send a version of this post in a letter or email to the bookstore. i think they would appreciate it.

  3. Yes.

    Many books – my most favorite is one of which all I could recall for decades is “it’s about a mole. and there are subways. and brocade. and it calls London Londinium. and I LOVED IT SO MUCH,” and which turned out to be Margaret Laurence (of all people)’s lovely little children’s novel Jason’s Quest. But also music. And movies. And talismanic objects (this one hand-shaped chunk of iridescenty indigo rock, for example).

    But my most glorious returns have all been people. For one reason or another, I sometimes lose touch with dear friends (or they with me) for years at a time…. rediscovering those people, reconnecting with them, always stage-lights my world. “Oh yes, YOU,” sort of a thing. A couple of them have come and gone several times, and I might’s’well be killing the fatted calf when I hear from them again. 🙂

  4. I’ll have to think more on the question, but I will contribute these two things:
    1.) The book has just been added to my Amazon Wish List. Gracias.
    2.) If you happen back to NYC, one of the best stores for children’s books is the Bank Street Book Store on 112th and B’Way. It is the book store for the Bank Street School for Children/Graduate School of Education. It is a wonderful place, especially when you consider that it is technically a “college book store”. They’re on the web now, though I haven’t used their site at all: http://www.bankstreetbooks.com/

    • Oh, I hope you get it and love it.

      One thing to recommend is to see if you can get a used copy in good condition. The newer editions have shrunk the illustrations, and I’ve read reviews online that some have even been printed in black and white. We had to replace my first copy because of exuberant handling by the Critter, and the replacement’s illustrations (while in color) aren’t quite so glorious in smaller scale.

  5. I had an intense dream in college that really bugged me when I woke up. I was a tiny person who was terribly afraid of giant insect people that wanted to squeeze me like a sponge and collect the fluid that dripped out of me. It was pretty terrifying; the giant insects would tear through the paper-like walls of the houses of my village, chasing me as a fled, grabbing my friends and family (who were also tiny, weird-looking people) and killing them horribly.

    It took me weeks of that niggling feeling that the dream related to something else before some friend or some other circumstance reminded me of The Dark Crystal. And I thought “Wait, there’s something in that movie that I’d forgotten.” I watched it again and wondered at how my six-year-old mind had processed those shiny black beetle-warriors and soft little muppets into something that would sleep for over a decade to be awakened in a dream.

  6. As a kid, I had a recording of Winnie the Pooh. Not Disney. I knew the voice, it was the same lovely voice as the Butler in the TV show, Family Affair. Sebastion Cabot. I kept looking for it; but only coming up with insipid Disney variations.

    Pooh’s songs are not done justice by Disney. They should have their artistic license revoked.

    A couple of years ago, my sweetie found a vinyl, same as my childhood, of Sebastion reading/singing not only Winnie the Pooh, but The House at Pooh Corner.

    Ahhh. The roots of my reading.

    • And Amazon tells me that my beloved Pooh is Disney; the original Disney, made with a vision of keeping true to the original books.

      • Right, Cabot narrated the first Disney Pooh film.

        • I do think I had something more in Cabot’s voice, for the poems from The House at Pooh Corner were also there; I can still hear the line, “don’t go down to the edge of town if you don’t go down without me.” It horrified me, in the safe stodgy world of Pooh, to have Jonathan James loose his mother so.

          That’s not in the movies.

          • Sure, but I suspect his involvement with the films is what led to him narrating the books. Or possibly vice versa.

  7. The latest Oz movie made me want to go looking for my Oz books by L. Frank Baum (which are, unfortunately in the US and I’m not). I remembered checking them out of my grade school’s library each week to read them. I finally asked for a copy of them when I was in 4th grade, I think.

    However, they were available for my Kindle, and I have greedily snatched them all!

  8. Irony:

    I vaguely recall this circumstance happening to me perhaps 8 years ago. But have absolutely no memory of the work in question or other details.

  9. I remember being in a video store where the overhead monitor was showing something vaguely medieval, where a young man and woman were arguing on top of a hill and then she pushed him down it. “That looks fun”, I thought, and proceeded to completely forget it. Then a few weeks later, I finally listened to the guy at work who was always going on about how I had to watch The Princess Bride.

  10. The Blue Cat of Castletown, by Catherine Coblentz.
    I had read it back in 2nd or 3rd grade and took away the lesson the “sing your own song” and “with your life fashion beauty” messages pretty strongly. Reading it again as an adult wasn’t as powerful, but still very enjoyable.

    My sister ran a science fiction book store for many years in Chicago. I often saw her deal with these type of questions. “I don’t remember the author, or title, or story, but the cover looked like and I read it 16 years ago.” Off she would run and bring it back. I was always quite impressed.

  11. Wow, there are so damn many! Maybe I’ll just focus on a few areas…

    AREA 1: Children’s books are definitely on this list. When my kids were little, I was surprised by the joy I had rediscovering the books I loved as a young boy with my own boys. Added bonus: They spoke to me in new ways! The best example I can think of are the Sendack books, especially Wild Things – which I now find a brilliant psychological tale as well as a great not-scary monster story. Where The Red Fern Grows, too, was amazing to reread.

    AREA #2: When iTunes happened, I found that I could hunt and search for all kinds of artists I had long since forgotten about. Some of them were well worth losing to time (hello, The Records!) but that didn’t dull the joy when their old album was put on iTunes. (Seriously, is there anything like a song you loved for a very short while that can transport you back to sights, sounds, smells, emotions, daydreams and relationships long since passed? I have listened to The Monkee’s Headquarters twice as an adult over thirty, and each time it took me back to the summer after 7th grade when I bought the album at a garage sale… and Suzanne Zeigler, whom I surely would have pledged my life to had she asked – or known I existed.)

    AREA #3: TV and Movies from my youth. These, however, almost always disappointing. These never seem to hold up. I remember watching a rerun of Welcome Back Kotter several years ago. It didn’t just make me cringe because I had loved it; it made me cringe because actual grown, professional adults had actually written, directed and acted in it.

  12. My memory is so hazy I have a million things that’re like milder versions of what you describe. The horror is music. I hear music that is captivating and try desperately to remember some of the lines so I can Google and find the songs. Invariably I cannot and am left mournfully humming the snippet of tune a bit. I don’t remember words in music much.

    Children’s literature likewise. I have a childhood memory of a book involving a small cat. For some reason he has a relative who went on Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest passage. Of course that relative is missing and the cat is sent through some kind of narrow passageway to find his missing relative. He then wanders through the frozen wreck of on of Franklin’s ships finding only farewell notes. I cannot find the book but the memories of those pictures haunts me. Especially, once I got older, when I discovered the full true story about the Franklin expedition.

    Youg adult literature as well. I was a remorseless reader including reading when I was supposed to be sleeping. One evening I crept to the bathroom to finish a particularly tasty sci-fi book by the bathroom light. Alas my Father got up and on hearing him about I fled back to my room leaving the book behind. I never found it again; I suspect the spiteful ol’ fellow disposed of it. It was about a noble savage man type who lives in a wilderness but the wilderness is the inside of a massive spaceship where apparently things have gone quite wrong. Animals and plant life run amok and humans eke out a living hand to mouth. There’re more advanced tribes and something about the ship being due to reach its destination or something. Ugh, I can even remember the cover, a rather picturesque man aiming to spear an unsuspecting pig in a sch-fi-ey plant infested corridor. Other than that I can’t pin down enough particulars to find what ever book it is.

    Oi this is a fertile subject for me Doc. I could go on all afternoon.

  13. When I was a boy in a small town in Iowa, the theater ran a Saturday matinee in the summer. It gave the kids something to do, and it was air conditioned, a big thing at the time. One Saturday there was an animated feature involving magic that, for some reason, gave me nightmares for a week. As an adult, I remembered two shots in particular: one where a giant fish-like thing leaped out of the water and grabbed a deer, and the other where the boy who was the main character was learning magic and trying to run up the wall to catch the wizard’s staff. I had long suspected that it might be “Magic Boy”, the second anime movie ever released in the US.

    At some point my wife found a DVD for sale online that has the movie, in horrible quality. Both scenes were there, pretty much as a remembered them. “Magic Boy” was a Japanese attempt to apply the Disney formula of telling an old folk story with songs and cute animals added. Interesting that what I remembered were the dark parts. Some day I’ll have to get serious about finding a better quality copy.

    • Funny you should mention anime retelling of folk stories. Another one of those shadowy memories of my childhood was an intensely weird anime version of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I remember very, very little of it, aside from there being an unsettling scene where this wicked stepmother-type character is assembling an audience of paper people for some kind of strange marriage, and at one point she claps her hands or something and these limp cutouts of people all sit up.

      Maybe one of these days I’ll see if I can hunt down a copy.

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