My imagination was recently captured when a friend shared an enchanting book she had found at the library. I was quite swept away by both the factual and fantastic details in John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, written by Caroline McAlister and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

This picture book is actually a children’s biography of the revered professor who created Middle-earth in his fictional tales of The Hobbit and the epic The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s life is here told like a story itself, beginning with a bookish lad growing up in the Midlands. His idyllic boyhood shenanigans hint at a mind primed for adventure, but his experiences are quite normal; or at least, generally lacking in the need for sword-fighting.

Young Tolkien meets with sadness at the death of his mother, and finds little comfort with his forbidding aunt. His guardian – a Catholic priest – sees to his education, and he marries the beautiful Edith. The Great War takes its toll upon his generation, but he survives the trenches and returns to Oxford to teach. He meets with his friends down at the Eagle and Child, and raises his family. Amid the fullness of ordinary life a most extraordinary story begins to emerge, which readers will recognize as The Hobbit.

Throughout this charming account runs the theme of dragons. Dragons swirl throughout John Ronald’s childhood stories, and dance across his imagination. He loves them, and he seeks them; but he never encounters them. Until he creates one himself, crouched upon the treasure of the dwarves under the Lonely Mountain.

What I find so endearing about this remarkable biography is the splendid normality of the subject. Too often we imagine J.R.R. Tolkien puffing his pipe in a gilded library, when in fact he was a real man with heartaches and worries and a desk job. But he was also a man of ideals, learning, and the sort of imagination that carried him far beyond the quiet life he led. McAlister acknowledges his Catholic faith and deftly portrays him as the fun-loving boy, battle-scarred veteran, devoted family man, dedicated scholar, and impossible dreamer that he was. The result is genuinely inspiring, and one can see the influences of his life upon his work.

The style of McAlister’s text reads like a storybook, with the factual details cleverly worked into the pattern of John Ronald’s burgeoning imaginative world. Friend and Tolkien scholar Dr. Holly Ordway assures me that, with some possible discrepancy as to the date when The Hobbit was begun and the inexplicable misspelling of Rayner Unwin’s name in the notes, this representation is generally considered to be accurate. There are several pages of notes in the back from both the author and the illustrator that shed more light on the life and work of this fascinating man.

The detail of Wheeler’s accompanying illustrations is incredible. Not only is Tolkien shown following his characters on their famous journey, but his own well-researched surroundings depict the everyday things that likely inspired the sensitive young author’s imagination: smoke curling from tall chimneystacks along a city street, a bearded headmaster’s pipe, explosions on the battlefield and the stately beauty of an ancient tree. The notes at the back lend even further meaning to this outstanding representation of a man whose “surroundings, interests, and experiences clearly permeate his creative landscapes.”

John Ronald’s Dragons is an absolute pleasure to read, and not so long that younger children won’t be enraptured by the boy and his dragons. (See how long it takes older readers to realize who the boy is!) Difficult subjects of parental loss, loneliness, and war are handled with care. A reader of any age could surely benefit from this thoughtful depiction of a great imagination reaching beyond the bounds of daily life, but ultimately reflecting the images and challenges found there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother by the same author and illustrated by Jessica Lanan