The Life-Changing Book

When Darling Sons A and B were freshmen in high school, their Language Arts teacher asked their class to write about a book that changed their life. The D.S.s groaned in fourteen-year-old disgust, not nearly as fascinated by this assignment as I was.

Their teacher explained that his life-changing book was The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming. Not exactly highbrow literature, you might think, but he picked it up at a used bookstore before embarking on a long train journey and it was the first book he’d ever read for pleasure. It turned him into a reader.

I recalled my life-changing book immediately.

When I was nine and visiting my paternal grandparents in a tiny town in central Illinois, I lived for Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, the only days the town library was open. The library was a single storefront room, inadequately cooled by several oscillating fans. It didn’t have enough shelving for all the books, so the children’s books sat in stacks on the floor.

In one of these stacks, I found my life-changer. Horace by Elizabeth Urquhart.Horace cover

Horace is the story of a little girl living in London whose mother sends her to the greengrocer to buy mushrooms.  She’s very excited by this prospect because something good always happens to her on the mushroom errand.  Once she found half a crown.  This time, she finds a baby dragon crying by the side of a bridge.  The dragon’s name is Horace, and when she helps him find his way home, he invites her to tea.

Greengrocer? What the heck was that? What good would half of a crown do? Wouldn’t it fall off your head? And what’s with this “tea” business?

My grandmother, with her fourth-grade education couldn’t help me with any of it, including how to pronounce “Urquhart”. For the first time, I had to interpret the meaning of words from their context.

In addition to that life-changer, the charming and whimsical story began my life-long love of British children’s fantasy.

Sadly, Horace is long out-of-print. A couple of years ago, however, I was able to buy a discarded library copy through AbeBooks. The story may be old-fashioned, but it’s still just as charming and whimsical as it was when I was nine and read it for the first time.

Thank you, Elizabeth Urquhart, for changing my life.