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: Sophie’s Squash

The season is changing now almost as fast as a toddler’s mood. Enjoy a bit of both with the adorable Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf.

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Precocious Sophie picks out a butternut squash for supper at the farmers’ market, but by evening the huggable fruit has become her best friend. Resisting her parents’ attempts to eat her new pal, Sophie names the squash Bernice and takes her everywhere. The two enjoy a friendship despite her parents’ warnings that a squash can’t last forever; until finally Sophie herself has to admit that her time with the squishy Bernice is coming to an end. But acting on a bit of advice from a farmer at the market, Sophie chooses a selfless resolution that even surprises her with the, ahem, fruit it ultimately bears.

Cheery pictures illustrate the sweet family themes in this story. Aside from the obvious – and totally understandable – scenario of a preschooler connecting with an unexpected object, we also glimpse a family sharing in wholesome activities and facing dilemmas in a healthy way. Both parents take Sophie to the market and the library, and discuss with her options for the inevitable end of her bosom buddy. Their suggestions as they allow her to reach the conclusion herself are evidence of a thoughtful family atmosphere (cooking the squash together, or donating it to a food pantry). Sophie’s eventual solution reflects the loving care that she receives herself.

It’s also very jolly to see what fun a child can have with an inanimate friend: tea parties and role-playing and tumbling down hills. In a world where kids are increasingly “wired”, Sophie is refreshingly unplugged. Her playful adoration of her vegetative chum spans the seasons; and when she decides to give Bernice what a squash really needs, she makes a joyful discovery about the circle of life.

This gently humorous book is a fun seasonal story-time choice for preschoolers, but readers from toddlers up through the early grades can enjoy the sweet adventures of Sophie and her squash.

Note: In the follow-up book Sophie’s Squash Goes To School our imaginative heroine has difficulty making friends at school, but learns a valuable lesson from a new friend – and this one is human.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Apple Doll by Elisa Kleven (This lovely out-of-print story also has instructions for making your own dried-apple doll.)

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Review: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals

Today I have a new book to share, bearing a memorably unusual name. Allow me to present Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley.

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This ambitious book of poems features an imaginary creature assigned to each letter of the alphabet. The names of the animals are often a pun (as in the Evol, the Oominoos, and the Zealion) and their natures are explored in a poem for each with accompanying illustrations. Two of these beasts – the Blug and the Dally – venture along and meet the other animals, looking for friendship and discovering a colorful world of adventure.

The tone of the book is clever silliness, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne. It encourages development of a child’s magnificent ability to comprehend fact and fantasy equally, as the details of the fictitious beasts are presented in a variety of legitimate poetic forms along with genuinely clever wordplay and a staggering vocabulary. Fun rhymes and wild onomatopoeia are sprinkled with words like “dolorous”, “periegetic”, and “fiefdom”. The poetry is varied and smart, and the illustrations match the mood of each one.

Though each poem is artful and could stand alone, more serious is the arc of the poems when taken all together. As the Dally and the Blug progress they encounter animals with all sorts of habits and personalities. When they finally come to the joyful Zealion, they reflect that each animal is deserving of charity despite its faults, and that studied goodness is the only way to overcome the wrongs in the world. In short, brotherly love is the message here. This progression is sometimes confused within the sheer volume of detail throughout this fantastic journey, but the purpose ultimately emerges and we realize that even the more detached characters have played a part in helping us to understand the deeper meaning. Once this is clear, it’s impossible not to want to go back over each poem, combing for details.

The main text of the book is followed by lengthy appendices including a list of alliterations based on the animals’ names, a list of hidden things to look for in the illustrations, and an impressive glossary – half helpful, half humorous – of both the fanciful words and the antiquated or difficult words used throughout (and a fair smattering of literary wit and faith-based wisdom, too). An inquisitive older child might enjoy poring over these on her own, but the lavish details of this book were meant to be enjoyed by adults and children together.

The book is very nicely bound and of a lovely size; it has a huge array of activities and is clearly designed to encourage family reading time. It is intelligently put together, though perhaps so much so that not every reader will have an interest in or appreciation for every aspect (we are prompted to scour the illustrations in search of “an Oxford punting pole from the Magdalen Bridge Boat House” and “three Loeb editions, sort of”). Some of the poems could be a bit earthy for the modern reader – I am thinking of the Rare and the Tanglis particularly – but if you can handle Kipling you can handle these.

M5 (as it’s called) is a jolly, quirky book; perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance, it materializes into something much more thoughtful, which takes time to explore. The theme so thoroughly permeates this volume – otherwise so frivolous in appearance – that it may take several readings to catch the meanings at various levels. For this reason it could be either a boon or a bore; for families who appreciate classical education, virtuous elevation, and a bit of bombastic erudition, this book is a worthy investment.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Big Words for Little Geniuses by Susan and James Patterson and illustrated by Hsinping Pan

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