Greg Pak's Centaur Crossing 3: ALL HAIL THE PUBLIC LIBRARY!

 

Welcome to Centaur Crossing, where comic book writer and filmmaker Greg Pak expounds upon the things that influence, affect, or excite him creatively. Which sometimes includes centaurs.

ALL HAIL THE PUBLIC LIBRARY

I grew up in Dallas, Texas, as a public school kid whose mom took him on weekly trips to the public libraries. So I'm very proud that on November 4, I'm speaking at a benefit dinner for the Friends of the Dallas Public Library. If you're in North Texas, please consider attending and donating to a great cause. (Added bonus -- I'll be giving out free comics!)

In honor of the public libraries that provided me with constant, free access to knowledge, literature, and inspiration, here are a few musings about the stories that compelled me as kid.

INDEPENDENCE, NOT ESCAPE

As a writer of superhero comics, I trade in what's usually called escapist literature. That can sound like a pejorative -- as if we read these stories in order to run away from real life. But I've been mulling over the books that blew my mind as a kid. And I'm coming to realize that the true theme isn't mere escape -- it's independence. And a dream of independence may be one of the biggest gifts you can give a kid. 

 

IT'S LIKE THIS, CAT, by Emily Neville

After visiting Coney Island a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking about a young adult novel I read as a kid that featured a boy riding the subway with his cat and meeting a nerdy, brown-haired girl on Coney Island. A few Google searches later, I was thrilled to learn the book is the 1964 Newberry Medalist "It's Like This, Cat," by Emily Neville, and can be downloaded for FREE at Amazon.com.

Everything about the story was wild and exotic to me. A kid, just a little older than me, can get on a subway by himself and go on a date with a girl? It seems like such a tiny thing. But for a suburban Dallas kid, that was a promise of a world of endless possibility. 

 

TARAN, WANDERER, by Lloyd Alexander

"Taran Wanderer" is the penultimate volume in Lloyd Alexander's brilliant Prydain fantasy series, part of which was adapted into the animated feature "The Black Cauldron" back in the day. Many have compared the Prydian series to "Lord of the Rings" -- both feature a wise wizard, a strange, goblin-like companion, and an epic hero's journey. But as much as I love "Lord of the Rings," Alexander's books remain my sentimental favorites. They're aimed at younger readers, so I read them first -- and read them again and again. And "Taran Wanderer" is the volume that thrilled me the most.

"Taran Wanderer" tells the story of assistant Pig-Keeper Taran, who sets off on a quest for his unknown parents in hopes that he'll discover he has noble blood. I won't spoil the ending, but during the course of the journey, Taran travels from village to village, meeting new people and briefly building himself a new life in each different community. He's a young man who's thrown himself out into the world, giving himself the challenge and the freedom to test his identity and figure out who he's going to become.

The whole fantasy of creating a life for yourself thrilled me as a kid. But what made the story more than fantasy was its recognition of how hard it is to make that new life and how struggle and failure are part of being human. I was fascinated by Taran's time with a potter. Taran struggles and struggles to get better at the pottery wheel -- Alexander recognizes and explores the genuine hard work behind any craft or calling more deeply than any writer I'd encountered up to that point. Again, I won't spoil the ending, but there's an almost shockingly simple and honest outcome to the story that adds humility and humanity to the dream of independence and challenged me as a kid to think big, hard thoughts.

WHAT'S THAT BOOK ABOUT A MOUSE WHO BUILDS AN INCREDIBLE FORT?

And now I need your help, dear readers. I remember a children's book about a mouse who for some reason is separated from his family and ends up building an incredible fort/house for himself. For a while I thought it was "Abel's Island" by the great William Steig, but I've re-read "Abel's Island," and while it's fantastic, it's not the book I'm remembering.

The book I'm remembering was more of a picture book, with elaborate drawings showing the layout and interiors of the mouse's elaborate home. I remember poring over the book, fascinated and inspired by the idea of building something huge and intricate and beautiful. Powerful stuff for a little kid. Heck, powerful stuff for an old comic book writer.

So thank you, public libraries, for all those Saturday afternoons well spent exploring the world and dreaming of independence.

And see you in Dallas on November 4!

P.S. If you think you might know what this mouse book is, please let me know via Twitter! The seven-year-old me who's been aching to re-read that book for decades will thank you.

Greg Pak writes Alpha Flight and Herc (with Fred Van Lente), Red Skull Incarnate, and Astonishing X-Men for Marvel and Dead Man's Run for Aspen. For more about his work, visit www.gregpak.com, www.twitter.com/gregpak, and www.gplus.to/gregpak.

©2011 Pak Man Productions. All rights reserved.

Greg Pak as a centaur, drawn by Stephen Morrow!

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