There was a program called Reading Is Fundamental that came to my elementary school at least once a year. It used to be one of my favorite days: you’d go down into the cafeteria, and on every table there would be books and books and books. The hard part was choosing just one. I’m not sure how old I was — fourth grade through sixth grade, something like that — when I brought home a book chosen solely on the basis of the dragon on the cover: The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley.
While I grew up reading a whole lot of proto-fantasy — loads of mythology, a whole spectrum’s worth of Andrew Lang’s fairy books, Oz and Wonderland and Narnia and the rest (I still remember my father making the voices for the Scoodlers in The Road to Oz) — this was the book that pushed me over the edge. It took a while for me to read and understand it; there’s an extended flashback, a long origin story, and scenes that are incredibly painful not just from a physical perspective. But I read it over and over, then later on at least once a year, and it became a kind of touchstone for me. And it told me that magic and dragons and quests were things that could be written about seriously, and that while happy endings were not always sparkles and rainbows, they were still possible.
I started taking fantasy more seriously after that, and it opened up not just new genres but new ways of reading. Maybe it was just the right book in the right place; maybe I would have headed down this path anyway (likely, given my tastes at the time), but The Hero and the Crown is always the mental signpost in my life that says “Dragons Ahead.”
(What’s funny about this is that I’m fairly certain the book my sister brought home was one that could have pointed me in a slightly different direction: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny. Only because she was the one who picked it up, I refused to read it for a while. Obviously, mine was the better book, because it was mine! …I lost out on a lot of good books because of this reasoning.)