In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Storytelling and dragons

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love Atinuke -- we read Anna Hibiscus' Song on repeat this weekend -- and look forward to her new series.  The video makes me think about storytellers we used to see perform when I was a kid: dramatic, hold the room in the palm of your hand performers who could stretch a story out in the best possible way.

Tonight I'm returning to dragons in the company of a storyteller: Shutta Crum, the author of Thomas and the Dragon Queen.  I mentioned this book briefly post-Christmas: a gift for Eleanor from my father-in-law, who somehow found a book containing both a Princess Eleanor and a baby sister named Isabel.  Perfection!

Eleanor adored Thomas -- we sped through the chapters, which are nice and short, punctuated with illustrations by Lee Wildish.  There's a lot to like in the book: an appealing hero, an episodic adventure, accurate medieval detail about arms and armor, dragons and other monsters, female characters with the names of the children in my family.  In terms of structure and tone, however, it's an uneven read.

Holly wrote so well last week about adult vs. child expectations of a narrative: as grownups reading to our kids, we want to pick books that are the right level of scary and suspenseful, not too dark just yet, but exciting.  We know that the heroes and heroines of children's books will be okay; we know what to expect.  Or do we?

Thomas and the Dragon Queen does not seem like a dark book.  Early on, you get to know not only small, unprepossessing Thomas, but also his small, unprepossessing friend Jon, who works in the stables, and the king's great horse, Heartwind, and the good old reliable donkey, Bartholomew.  It is love for these animals that introduces Princess Eleanor to the plot: she comes to the stables to feed Heartwind and Bartholomew in secret.  Towards the end, the dragon queen, Bridgoltha, is revealed to be the mother of twelve baby dragons, who has kidnapped Princess Eleanor to be their nursemaid.  All the dragons can talk (one of them in a mildly annoying cutesy way), and things with Bridgoltha are worked out via diplomacy and bargaining rather than violence.  This seems like one kind of book.

And yet.  The story takes place in a kingdom under siege: though it's never fully explained who is attacking and why, all of the able-bodied men of the kingdom are fighting at its borders.  Thomas only becomes a squire, and then a knight, because there aren't many adults around.  The king knights Thomas, then feels guilty about it and follows him in his quest to rescue Princess Eleanor; on the way, both parties fight a giant swamp monster with tentacles and many mouths.  Thomas defeats him, in a cool and complicated plot twist.  When he awakes, he finds out from Jon that when the king's party was attacked, everybody but the king and Jon died.  Including Heartwind.  Reading this aloud to Eleanor, I was taken aback -- what kind of story is this?  But no time to dwell on the deaths: in the next section, Thomas has to get across a body of water to Bridgoltha's island, and there is a several page long episode in which he rescues a baby dolphin from a bunch of floating debris.  A baby dolphin?  After you just killed off Heartwind?  Tonally, it's odd.

When I read in the author bio that Crum is a professional storyteller, among other things, I wondered whether part of what I was responding to in the book was the episodic nature of oral storytelling.  You don't tell a novel -- you tell sections, stories, tales.  Perhaps I should think about Thomas and the Dragon Queen in that light, as a group of linked short stories.  None of this seemed to cause any narrative dissonance for Eleanor.  As a parent, however, I know what to expect from a narrative, and I want to trust the narrator who's leading me and my child through the forest. 

Love, Annie

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