I still remember what a dragon looks like.
For today's column I would like to take a moment and write to a distant memory that has once again returned to mind. A memory that, upon refection today, has much I believe to do with why I continue to have such a strong interest and attraction towards Eastern/Asian arts and culture.
This memory I speak of finds its form in that of a book. An illustrated picture book to be more precise and one that I read many times during my time as an elementary school student at Alexander Elementary School.
The title of the book "Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like" has eluded my recollection long into adulthood, but thanks to the internet I have been able re-discover the necessary reminders needed to unlock both emotional and nostalgic feelings.
Written in 1976 by author Jay Williams, and masterfully illustrated with lavishly detail watercolors by Mercer Mayer; this literary folk-tale has to this day left more than a lasting impression on me.
Now although the story seems to draw from that of actual folk origin, it remains an original tale that, in my youth, was perfect for my impressionable mind.
It goes something like this...
Set in Wu, an imaginary village in the mountains of Asia, the story introduces us to Han a peasant boy, whose job it is to greet visitors arriving to the city. When Wu becomes threatened by an invasion of sword-toting wild horsemen, its citizens pray for help from the Great Cloud Dragon.
As answer to their pleas, a small, bearded, fat old man with a cane appears at the front gate and claims that he is the dragon is himself.
Upon seeing the man and hearing his clam Han replies “You don’t look like a dragon,” the old man, with a warm grin responds “How do you know?” “Have you ever seen one?”
When the villagers and elders reject the idea that the old man is in fact a dragon, it is only through the kindness and humility of Han that the old man finds reason to save Wu from invasion.
For me, many of my early childhood memories are fuzzy or so heavily fractured that I can rarely make since of much; but for some reason I possess a vividly clear recollection of this book and even more, where it could be found.
I remember walking up the stairs of the main brick school building, entering the library, heading towards the back room of books, turning left to the small row of books on the bottom shelf, and... reaching for the book.
Why did this book leave such a lasting impression on me even though I never owned a copy?
That I'm not entirely sure, but do have a thought.
It cannot be denied that what attracted me to the book, over and over again, was the artwork.
Each illustration possessed a mysterious quality in its depiction of Asian characters, architecture and landscapes. This, for me, lends strong merit to the fact that early on in my childhood a seed was planted that would continue require more education and cultural immersion if it was to grow into the exciting interest it is today.
The story as well offered foundation in the early ideals of not judging a person by their appearance alone and that compassion for each other can overcome aggression. Both are life concepts that I feel young me took away from this book on an unconscious level.
According to the internet it seems paperback re-prints of the book can be found as well as a few first and second print runs of the original hardcover edition.
The hardcover edition is the one first read and although I have recently found a few online leads towards purchasing a copy; an even bigger enjoyment would be actually owning that very same hardback copy I read so many times, so long ago.
I am sure however it has since faded out of existence like so many pieces from my past; but I still have hope that it's out there somewhere, still on a bookshelf, just waiting to make more memories that will last a lifetime.