To me as a reader and a teacher, it seems obvious that a person’s childhood reading shapes their sense of self as an adult reader … in fact, that connection was one reason I started writing this blog. I believe that, if you’re lucky, you find some touchstone books in your childhood that stay with you throughout your reading life, specific stories and characters that become part of your identity. But I think that childhood reading can shape you in other ways as well. The books you read as a child can help to set your expectations for books and for genres. I imagine those streams of childhood books cutting a riverbank for each genre, training your mind in what to expect from a mystery, a fairy tale, a piece of historical fiction. A well-worn path could, I think, make it easier for an older reader to slip easily into more sophisticated examples of a genre they learned as a child.
Which brings me to fantasy.
Magic, wizards, fairies, and spells are all very common features of children’s books, and those elements seem to point the way toward an adulthood of quality fantasy reading. However, this fall I discovered a book that captured so many elements of classic genre fantasy that it seemed to quality as a set of training wheels for a future of Tolkien and McCaffrey. I present it here as a good starting place if you’d like to set your children on a path toward speaking Elvish (or at least appreciating it).
The book is called The Dragonling, and it is part of a series of six books by Jackie French Koller. She describes the books and her process of writing them on her website. As I read The Dragonling with one of my book groups this fall, I found myself becoming more and more tickled by the ways in which it fit so neatly into expectations for the fantasy genre, on so many different levels.
1. The Practical Level. Honestly, this book just sounds like a fantasy. It’s set in a village that is both vaguely medieval and somehow timeless: thatched roofs, men dressed in tunics and knee breeches, lots of bow-and-arrow hunting. The characters have names like Darek and Clep and Pola. There are dragons, carefully classified into different species, as well as other familiar-sounding but fantastical creatures and plants, like glibbets and barliberries. There are also specific rules of this fantasy world: a dragonhunt is a rite of passage for young men; the killer of the dragon is named the “marksman” and has the honor of wearing the dragon’s claw around his neck. All of this essentially boils down to “world building” in the best tradition of great fantasy books. It’s world building that is simple enough for third graders to grasp, but it’s training them in that unique combination required of readers of fantasy: suspending disbelief while also following the strict, author-established rules of a world.
2. The Character Level. It will surprise no one who is a fan of adult fantasy that this story centers on a young man who makes a connection with a creature from outside his own world and has to make a series of Right Decisions, many of which involve going against his family and his traditions. When Darek’s brother brings back the body of Great Blue dragon from a dragonhunt, Darek discovers a baby in the mother dragon’s pouch. He names the tiny dragon Zantor and sets out on a quest to bring it back to its home in the Valley of the Dragons. Along the way he learns to question many of the things he had been taught about dragons and forms a friendship with the little dragon. This type of solitary hero’s quest may seem familiar … but that’s because it’s so effective.
3. The Thematic Level. To me, one of the key elements of a great fantasy book is its ability to speak to Big Ideas, which can often be approached more directly because the setting and characters are comfortably removed from our world. The Dragonling delivers on those Big Ideas, and manages to do so in a third-grade friendly way. When I read the book, I personally focused on some pacifist ideas: by the end of the novel, Darek and other members of his community start to take a stand against the idea that killing others is a way for boys to prove themselves as men. Interestingly, when I asked the students what they thought the lesson of the story might be, they focused instead on big social ideas. Over the course of the story, Darek learns that dragons are peaceful plant-eaters instead of the dangerous hunters he’s always been told they are. One of the students pointed out that part of the story and said she thought it was meant to teach “not to listen to what other people say about someone, but to find out for yourself what they’re like.” Pretty big ideas from a third-grade level story, but completely accessible for these readers.
Perhaps one of the most fantasy-like elements of this fantasy novel was the reaction of the kids who read it. I read this with a group of five (three girls and two boys) and every one of them responded with almost obsessive love for this book. We were reading an edition that had the first three books in the series, and I had originally planned to just read the first one. When I suggested that we might not read the second (A Dragon in the Family), the group practically mutinied. They were devastated to learn that we wouldn’t be reading the third book, Dragon Quest (my perfectly reasonable argument that we were going on Christmas break and therefore wouldn’t be IN a book group falling on deaf ears) and all begged to be allowed to read the third book on their own. Honestly, if there were a Comic Con equivalent for Dragonling books, I think I would have had five potential visitors ready to go.
As I get this blog up and running again, I’m going to continue to look for the books that can set young readers on track for a lifetime of good genre reading … and retrace the books that set me in those paths. If you’re in the process of growing a young fantasy reader, this series is a great place to start.