What’s in a Name: The Power of Dedications

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Always read the dedications. It is, after all, part of the story.

My Dear Lucy,

          I wrote this story for you…

C.S. Lewis began his classic young reader’s fantasy, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, with a brief dedication to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, for whom he named the youngest child—not to mention the first to set foot in the land of Narnia—in the series.

One of my first ventures in the world of fantasy, the Narnia books were my gateway drug into The Hobbit when I was ten, then Lord of the Rings and all things J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth as a teenager, and many other paperback adventures with dragons, wizards, and worlds far away. Into these worlds, I was swept, and I still only come back occasionally to take on real-life necessities and make sure my children are happily off on their own grand literary quests.

With almost every book I read, I make sure to look at, or at least for, the dedication.

I love to catch a glimpse into the life and inspiration of an author who may have in turn inspired so many others, and find out, however briefly, who meant enough to them to have their name alongside some of the literary world’s most famous characters.

Just from a name or a comment, you can learn so much more about the author, and sometimes the time and circumstances in which the book was written.

Reading dedications has become something I do almost subconsciously, but I began to think about it more recently when I read my youngest daughter A Wrinkle In Time, so she could form her own characters and worlds before seeing what the filmmakers had in mind. She is already old enough to read chapter books on her own, but sometimes it’s just fun to read together. When we finished the book, I went back and read to her the straightforward dedication: “For Charles Wadsworth Camp and Wallace Collin Franklin.”

“Charles Wallace,” my daughter realized, “Like the little boy in the book!”

Author Madeleine L’Engle said in a Scholastic interview she doesn’t base her characters on real persons. Charles Wallace’s name, at least, was inspired by two people, her father and her father-in-law, whom she said were “both wonderful men.” With that simple dedication, they would always know, I hope, what they meant to the author.

Most of the time, I see dedications towards parents, children, spouses, or some other family member or friend. Sometimes, they are to a person pivotal in helping with the creative process.

The first chapter book I read without help as a girl was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. He dedicated the book to his 11-year-old stepson, Samuel Lloyd Osborne, with satirical formality as if he were already himself a discriminating literary critic.

“To S.L.O.” he wrote, “An American gentleman in accordance with whose classic taste the following narrative has been designed. It is now, in return for numerous delightful hours, and with the kindest wishes, dedicated by his affectionate friend, The Author.”

Osborne had a life-long bond with Stevenson and later collaborated with him on some work. I’m sure this dedication was a great motivator.

Modern classics, as well, reveal those closest to the author in times of good and bad. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book that propelled J.K. Rowling from obscurity to celebrity, is dedicated to three people.

“For Jessica, who loved stories,” is Rowling’s daughter.

“For Ann, who loved them too,” Rowling’s mother, who, sadly, died of Multiple Sclerosis seven years before the book was published.

“And for Di, who heard this one first,” is her sister, who has the good fortune to get to read the book before Rowling sent it to be reviewed.

“Di” may have been the first, but she certainly wasn’t the last to fall prey to the lure of Rowling’s fantastic storytelling, fortunately for all us book lovers.

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Dedications in books, like this one from C.S. Lewis to his goddaughter Lucy, can reveal whole new stories about the author’s life. Images: Lisa Tate

My favorite dedications are the ones that set the scene for the tone of the story, as with Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens:

“The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. Chesterton. A man who knew what was going on.”

Gaiman’s dedications in his picture books are more personal. He wrote his poem “Blueberry Girl” (later made into a book) to his good friend, singer Tori Amos, and her daughter, Tash (Gaiman’s goddaughter) “when she was only a bump and a due date.” Illustrator and frequent collaborator Charles Vess made his dedication to another woman in his life, his mother “who was always there for me, my first admirer and critic.”

Lemony Snickett, himself a darkly wonderful figment of the mind of author Daniel Handler, dedicated each volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events with such heart-wrenching love to “Beatrice,” readers began to want to know as much about her as about the book’s protagonists, The Baudelaire Children. If you’re not reading Snickett’s dramatic dedications, “To Beatrice — darling, dearest, dead” you’re missing half the mystery… and much of the fun.

“For Beatrice,” he dedicates his final chapter in the series, “I cherished, you perished, the world’s been nightmarished.”

I even followed my own mystery when I picked up a ghostly tale by Ray Bradbury, From the Dust Returned, largely because it had a cover by Addams Family creator Charles Addams. Bradbury dedicated this book to two of its “midwives,” as he called them, “Don Congdon, who was in at the beginning in 1946, and Jennifer Brehl, who helped me bring it to completion in 2000.”

Congdon, my mother’s maiden name, is not a super-common name. Her cousin was named Don (Donny) Congdon, and was killed by a drunk driver in the late 1950s. I was curious if there was any connection, as I had heard of Don often, but he was killed years before I was born. I later learned Don Congdon, who died in 2009 at age 91, was Bradbury’s (and many other significant authors’) literary agent. I not only learned a lot about the legacy of the agent Mr. Congdon, but I ended up down the path to some of my own family’s history. I gained all this new knowledge because I saw one name in the dedication of a book.

Even the dedication in the simplest books is a way for the personality of the author to shine through. Children’s picture book author and illustrator Sandra Boynton is great at this. Her Oh My Oh My Dinosaurs is to her daughter “Oh My Darcy,” and her Hippos Go Berserk is dedicated to her “Mom and Dad,” with love, and the disclaimer “I didn’t invite them. Did you invite them?”

I have learned not every book has a dedication, and I’m always disappointed when I don’t see one. Often, this is the case with novelty tie-ins to a movie or television series, or with compilations, such as collected comic strips.

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, however, did dedicate The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book to his wife with a simple “To Melissa,” accompanied by a drawing of Hobbes making a little “heart” symbol with his hands. This gesture of love can be worth more than the most expensive jewel.

What’s sad to me is when I can find no dedication within a full novel. Hasn’t the author anyone they want to acknowledge? Are they lonely, or just insufferably self-absorbed? Having made it a habit to look at the dedication in a book, these are things I think about.

To my knowledge, Tolkien never officially dedicated The Hobbit to anyone, although there are some very rare—and expensive—copies of this story he dedicated to someone by hand in his famous calligraphy.

According to the Tolkien Library site, one copy he dedicated to “Elaine Griffiths” sold for more than $120,000, and he dedicated another high-priced volume “To Stella Mills, from her old friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.” How cool that was for Stella, as well as for whoever now owns that tome?!

MollysBone
Thanks, Mr. Smith. Just another sketch for you, but a treasure for us!

This is also the reason I love signed books. Getting an autograph from a random celebrity, like an actor or politician, may be a neat souvenir of an experience, but it really doesn’t mean that much to me. A signed book, however, is like getting my own personal dedication within the pages of a favorite story, even if there is already a formal one.

Not long after my first daughter was born, we had recently moved from Santa Fe, and we learned from a friend that Bone creator Jeff Smith was going to be at the local comic book shop singing his enormous Bone compilation book. I asked him to get us a copy, and we soon received one in the mail.

Even though this book was formally dedicated to Cartoon Books’ president Vijaya Iyer, with the simple “This Book is for Vijaya,” it also had a hand-written note from Smith to our daughter.

“To Molly,” a little sketch of Bone exclaimed, “Best, Jeff Smith.” She was still a baby when he wrote this, but today, as a teen, she treasures this book.

If that little note, which I am sure many people at the signing walked home with that day, could make someone feel special, imagine how the person whose name is forever bound to a classic might feel.

This must have been the case for Lucy, whose dedication was followed by a thoughtful note from Lewis lamenting that when he began his story he did not realize “girls grew quicker than books.” As a result, he said, she would be too old for “fairy tales,” and when the book is finally printed and bound, older still. He then offered a beacon of hope with a touch of humor to all parents and guardians who have to endure with a mix of pride and melancholy as the children in their own lives growing up.

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” Lewis wrote. “You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and to old to understand a word you say, but I shall be…your affectionate Godfather, C.S. Lewis.”

In a way, this is a dedication and a reminder to stay young and imaginative, for all of us.