I knew I was different my entire life. Born with a neuromuscular disability, my early childhood involved medical procedures, hospital and doctor visits, and times spent by myself due to social isolation or not being able to keep up with my non-disabled peers when playing.
On one of my birthdays, I received Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like (Four Winds Press, 1976) by Jay Williams and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. This fantastical folk tale blew my mind, starting a lifelong love of fantasy, speculative fiction, and children’s literature. With my body struggling to walk and “maintain strength” this story filled me with power and the central idea that people should never be underestimated.
No longer in print, the story takes place a long time ago in the city of Wu. The main character is a boy named Han who works as a gate-sweeper for the city. A poor orphan, he only receives one cup of wine and a bowl of rice for his labor (he was a child laborer! they gave him wine!). The entire city is in a panic because a messenger alerted the leaders of Wu that an invading army of marauders is on the way. No one knows what to do. All the adults in the room dispense advice from their smug and limited perspectives. Without any clear direction or consensus, they pray to the Cloud Dragon to save them.
The next day “a small, fat man came walking up the hill. He had a long white beard and a shiny bald head, and he leaned on a long staff.” He tells the leaders of Wu that he is the Cloud Dragon and if they give him something to eat and drink he will protect the city. Everyone laughs and mocks him except for Han. Everyone thinks they know what a dragon looks like, though they have never met one, and they are sure that a dragon is NOT a small old man.
As people in the city prepare for invasion, Han offers the old man his daily ration of rice and wine, and shows him hospitality in his little hut. After eating to his content, the old man says to Han, “I don’t think much of the people of Wu… but for your sake I will save the city.”
This is the point where two illustrations by Mercer Mayer swept and shook me. Both the language and text packed a powerful one-two punch to my worldview:
The little fat man puffed out his cheeks. He blew a long breath. The sky grew dark and lightning sizzled from the clouds to the earth. A great wind arose. It caught the Wild Horsemen and blew them far and wide. Those who escaped, turned and galloped madly away through the storm. The sky cleared. The sun shone again. The plain was empty.
I remember it clearly, a black and white illustration showing a human… swirling as a giant cloud. The swirls and magnitude of the cloud deity made the city seem insignificant. Seeing the transformation from a human figure to a force of nature gave me the belief that we all have something inside waiting to emerge.
Once I turned the page the second illustration was even more mind-bending. The cloud deity transforms into a dragon for Han. From puffed soft lines, the cloud deity that looked like the giggling Pillsbury doughboy morphed into a fierce dragon with fangs, claws, and scales, “He was more beautiful and more frightening than anything Han had ever seen.”
The detail of Mayer’s illustrations with Williams’ evocative language transported me to another dimension as a child. I swam deep into Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like. Those two images are as vivid in my memory now from the day I first read the book.
Before A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Harry Potter series, and everything by Octavia E. Butler, Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like was magical and culturally resonant. The story challenged my assumptions as the title suggests and encouraged me to be kind and open-minded. It also taught me that adults don’t know everything. Teachers and doctors had fixed ideas of what my future was going to be like; they never knew there was an inferno of rage and creativity waiting to leap out.
Books were a refuge for me, as they are for so many marginalized kids. My imagination was an infinite accessible multiverse where I could escape, have fun, learn, absorb, and dream big. Maybe I couldn’t go on the merry-go-round or jump off the diving board, but I could read like a little mofo and question my reality all day long. When I grew up, my sisters and I received books more often than toys for presents. We had two large bookshelves filled with all kinds of stories. I don’t know how my parents selected them, but I am very grateful that we had this personal library at our disposal. What a treasure!
For the last forty years, I’ve been connecting the dots of how the books from my youth shaped me into the person I am today. I hope this journey will be as entertaining as Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like.
(Editors’ Note: This essay as it originally appeared in Uncanny’s Year 4 Kickstarter included two images of the Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like illustrations mentioned by Alice Wong, which can be viewed by visiting the Kickstarter Update.)
© 2018 by Alice Wong