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: Over the River and Through the Wood

It’s almost time for Thanksgiving; and with it a flurry of activity as families travel across the world or across the yard to share a day with one another. Wherever you’re bound this year, members of every generation can recollect their own beloved traditions with Over the River and Through the Wood: A Thanksgiving Poem by Lydia Maria Child and illustrated by Christopher Manson.

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This striking volume contains the original words to the well-known tune, telling the story by couplets. An eager little boy peeps out the back of the sleigh (circa 1840) as his family makes their way to Grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving. As they pass through a bustling village and the still, snow-drifted countryside, he can hardly contain his excitement. Finally in the evening they come to a farm, and the boy runs into the open arms of his grandmother. The family sits down to a traditional feast, and the book concludes with all the verses and the music for the song.

The unique woodcut illustrations are a brilliant match for this story. Early American scenes come to life in a popular medium of the time. Bundled figures in shades of brown seem natural and even cheerful as they work, surrounded by the clear brightness of a snowy day. As the subjects drive along we see folks skating, sailing, ice-fishing, logging, horseshoeing; and with them we can almost feel the wind that “stings the toes and bites the nose”. The famous dapple-gray horse keeps brisk pace with the song as our impatient little boy leans forward in all the hope of good things at Grandma’s house – and so do we.

For many Americans such scenes are a part of our collective memory, if not our actual experience. Of course not everyone recognizes the sting of cold air in late November, nor even the warmth of a grandmother’s embrace. Even fewer have been out visiting in a sleigh. But however and wherever we celebrate now, Thanksgiving is still a valuable part of our national identity; and we can all recognize the desire to be with those who love us most. An idyllic old-fashioned setting is not just empty nostalgia or a narrow vision, but an invitation to renew our dedication to our own homes and families.

This book gives fresh insight to familiar words, and provides strong visual cues for sensations that children will recognize: the tingling feeling as you take a gulp of cold air, the warm smell of food cooking, the sound of laughter when friends meet, the anxious hug of someone you’ve been missing. With emphasis on the anticipation and joy of a family gathering, Manson’s rendering would be a delight to read aloud when squirmy little guests start wondering if dinner will ever be ready. Or big ones, for that matter.

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry

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Review: Ox-Cart Man

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”

With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.

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The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.

With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).

Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.

This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.

From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)

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