Review: Tell Me A Dragon

Children have the most intriguing ability to mingle the factual with the fantastic, as do some of the best children’s authors and illustrators. Jackie Morris has created a glorious flight of fantasy with her stunning work Tell Me A Dragon.

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On each splendid page of this colorful picture book a different human character introduces his or her dragon. Yes, dragon. The people hail from all around the world: from history and folklore and mythology and from perfectly ordinary modern life. They live in castles, gypsy caravans and city skylines; some are from the desert and some are from the sea, some wear magnificent robes and some wear pajamas. But they each have a magnificent dragon.

These dragons are breathtaking. They are different colors and sizes, paying homage to the way cultures all around the world have imagined their dragons for centuries. They swirl through their lush surroundings but they are evidently quite tame, always in perfect cooperation with their humans. They are ridden, fed, petted and coddled. And they are described in one or two sentences that quite fulfill the dreams of any dragon-lover.

As readers delight in this parade of dragons so gorgeously depicted, they get a certain sense that a dragon is nothing to fear, but rather a faithful companion. There is something winsome, loyal and noble in the eyes of each. Sure enough, we finally meet one whiskered dragon guarding a clutch of eggs “so that somewhere in the wide world there will always be DRAGONS.” Looking at the little one just hatching, we feel that this can only be a good thing.

In case any little readers still have their doubts, the last dragon is curled lovingly around a child’s pillow, watching the door and warding off bad dreams. Even the most trepidatious heart will surely then be ready for the marvelous final spread and the invitation to imagine dragons of our very own.

The words in this book are simple but rich. It doesn’t take long to read, but the jewel-like illustrations welcome readers to pore over every luscious detail. We see more than just the twirling majesty of the dragons; we see faces, landscapes, dreams and ideas that span space and time. The careful adult line between fiction and reality is erased and readers are encouraged to shape their own dreams into the form of a beautiful dragon.

For the scientifically-minded, newer editions of Tell Me A Dragon feature several pages of facts and field notes about dragons at the end of the book. Even the endpages are pure magic; be sure to see if little ones can spot the difference between the front and the back.

A lavish readaloud for your thoughtful dreamers and fact-memorizers alike, this lovely book is a superb choice for every age group. To my knowledge it is not currently in print in the United States, but is well worth finding at your local library.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Dragonology by Dr. Ernest Drake

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Review: The Wall

Memorial Day is just around the corner, and with it comes an opportunity to discuss the reason for this holiday with youngsters. An insightful story can aid these challenging conversations, and The Wall – written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler – is one of the best for this purpose.

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A little boy visits the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his father. They walk the length of that shiny black wall, looking for a very special name. As they go along, searching together, the boy observes other visitors and the memorials they’ve left behind: a wounded veteran, a grieving couple, flags and flowers, notes and pictures. He runs his hand along that wall, noticing how it looks and how it feels.

At last they find it. They run their fingers over the name of their father and grandfather. They take a rubbing, leave a photograph, and talk together in voices thick with emotion. The boy expresses his sadness to his father, who responds with loving sympathy towards his son but also pride in the legacy of his father. The two visitors are proud of this soldier, proud of his service; though they know that such pride can never take the place of the life he might have lived with them.

This book has been around for almost thirty years, but it is just as beautiful today as when it was featured on the old Reading Rainbow program. The boy makes all the observations of a curious child trying to make sense of big issues and jumbled feelings. With the empathetic support of his father – who is mourning his own father – he faces his sense of loss. These understanding exchanges are particularly poignant as the boy admits that he is proud of his grandfather, but would rather he could be with them.

Not only is this a gentle treatment of a difficult subject, it also provides children with a point of reference for respecting the agony and the sacrifice of others. They can see that there is no time limit on the pain of missing someone, but that it is good to talk about it and that there are appropriate ways to honor someone’s memory. And that we all owe a debt of gratitude to service members who perish in the line of duty; that we need not glorify the horrors of war to honor the sacrifice they made.

I find one image particularly helpful for children: as the boy and his father bow their heads before their loved one’s place on the Wall, a gaggle of schoolchildren pass by. Their loud and thoughtless questions contrast sharply with the quiet, more private behavior of the other visitors. The boy follows his father’s example and continues to stand with his head bowed until they are gone. A young reader will easily recognize that many things are turning over in the boy’s heart and mind, and that he needs time alone to be as close to his grandfather as he ever will be. This is very useful for helping children understand the importance of quiet and respectful conduct at any place of remembrance.

The wonderfully accomplished Eve Bunting has given teachers and caregivers an optimum means of presenting young children with reverent awareness of our fallen soldiers and empathy for their families. She does not attempt to convey the political motivations of any war, nor does she stoop to empty patriotism or saccharine emotions. But in the simplest way she does explore the complexities of love and loss, pride and sacrifice. She reminds us that society has given us respectful traditions for honoring the slain, if we will but claim them.

Himler’s soft, smudgy illustrations are a perfect match for the slim, meaningful text. He depicts a cold, overcast day as a backdrop for the enormity of the Wall and the perfect rows of names. The features of the people are slightly obscured within the paint, allowing them some privacy in their grief. This creative team opens up a new space in the heart of the little boy in the story, and will do so for your own children too.

Please don’t be afraid to talk with your children about Memorial Day. Let them take some flowers to the monument downtown, or wave a flag at the parade. After reading this story I hope they will want to.

It is up to us to teach them what has been, so they can grow to determine what will be.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tucky Jo and Little Heart, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

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Review: Library Lion

If you’re a book lover, you probably already know that few things are more delightful than visiting the library and coming home with more books… and even books about books. Hopefully you know some children who feel the same way, and they are sure to find a friend in Library Lion, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.

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One day a lion strolls casually into the library and makes himself at home. At first the staff and patrons show concern, but as there are no rules against lions in the library, he is permitted to stay. When story time is over he lets out a roar of disapproval and, having broken the rule to keep quiet in the library, it looks as though he will have to leave. Miss Merriweather, the head librarian, is a stickler for the rules. But the children intervene on his behalf, and Lion is allowed to return so long as he observes the rule to keep quiet. He soon becomes indispensable, performing many helpful duties about the library (much to the annoyance of Mr. McBee at the circulation desk). At last one day, in a very good cause, the lion roars again… and knows that he must leave forever. Will the library ever be the same without him? Who could entreat him to return? And can the rules be disregarded under very special circumstances?

This sweet story is well-paced and smooth to read, with a thoroughly pleasant conclusion. The words themselves are as quiet as a librarian’s shoes, but the unfolding story gives readers two opportunities to ROAR! Who could resist? Even the tension building to the climax is gentle, so that the subtle changes in moods, relationships, and prejudices are easily perceived. In this story everyone has a place, and by the end each character readily embraces the good intentions and inherent value of the others.

In keeping with the nature of the story, Hawkes’ illustrations are likewise soft and a bit dreamy. His depictions of tidy stacks, the regal golden lion, and stereotypically prim library staff are most welcoming. The font is classic and printed in a soft brown, so the whole volume looks like the consummate picture book that it truly is.

This story is a sweet choice for sharing with your favorite lap-sized library pal. It is a little longer than is fashionable for newer children’s picture books; but every word builds the story, and the story is so engaging that it can help to stretch young attention spans too. For youngsters who already love to be read to it is a perfect choice.

With the beautiful page design at which Candlewick Press excels, Library Lion would also make a beautiful gift for any child or library. Donate a copy to a day care center or to the children next door. Book by book, everyone can help to support a culture of reading.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Library, written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small

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