The Dragonling Series: Growing Fantasy Fans

Dragonling cover via Amazon

The Dragonling (Cover via Amazon)

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.

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

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.

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A Bargain For Frances: Being Careful and Being Friends

There are some books that I save to read to my class at particular times (my stacks of holiday books come to mind) or for a particular occasion (Officer Buckle and Gloria always follows our discussion of class rules).  Then there are books that I have to read because they’re just … necessary.  This week I pulled A Bargain for Frances (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) off the shelf, in part because it seemed to connect to our school anti-bullying initiative, but more because it’s just a necessary childhood book in my mind.  It’s a book that could easily fall between the cracks because it doesn’t quite fit into any category.  The format isn’t quite like a typical picture book, and the “I Can Read” edition I have scares away some of my more sophisticated readers.  It hasn’t won any major awards (although it was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1970).  Yet every time I read it I’m struck by what a truly wise, warm, and funny story it is.

Cover of "A Bargain for Frances"

Cover of A Bargain for Frances

In A Bargain for Frances, the young badger Frances (also featured in Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances) is going to play with her friend Thelma.  Before she leaves, her mother warns her to “be careful.”  She reminds Frances of other times Thelma has manipulated things so that they go her way, pointing out that “when you play with Thelma you always get the worst of it.”  Frances reassures her mother and sets off for a tea party with her friend.  Frances tells Thelma that she is saving up for a tea set made of real china.  Yet somehow, by the end of the tea party, Thelma has convinced Frances to give her the $2.17 she has saved up in exchange for Thelma’s plastic tea set.  When Frances learns that Thelma tricked her, Frances comes up with a trick of her own to get her money back.

I’m still not sure if it was multiple readings of this story as a child that made it stick in my mind or if it was just the power of the story itself, but the details of this book come back to me incredibly clearly every time I reread it.  I have such a strong memory of the two tea sets – the real china one with pictures all in blue and the plastic one with red flowers – that they almost seem like something I wanted myself as a child (though I wasn’t really a “tea set” girl).  The single penny at the bottom of the sugar bowl that Frances uses to trick Thelma, the expressions on the two girls’ faces throughout … these little details are part of what make this simple story such a classic.

Yet when I read this book as an adult, I’m struck even more by the realism of the relationship between the girls.  Thelma’s careful persuasion of Frances could be studied by negotiators: she starts by talking up her own tea set, then disparages china tea sets (which are “no good” because they just break).  She explains that you can’t get china tea sets any more, and tells a cautionary tale about a girl who saved up for one and never ended up getting any tea set at all.  Finally, when Frances is eager to buy Thelma’s set, Thelma demurs, declaring she might have “changed her mind.”  It’s masterful (and pretty funny), but also feels so right in imitating the ways little girls interact with each other.  I always feel my stomach give a little lurch as I read it and watch Frances getting drawn in.  This year when I asked my students how they would feel if they were Frances, one student declared, “I would feel really uncomfortable and like I wanted to get out of there!”  My thoughts exactly.  Frances’s trick to get around the “no backsies” promise she gave Thelma is also both clever and believable, precisely the plan a bright little girl might come up with.

At the end of my read aloud of this book this week, one my students made an interesting observation.  “Her mom is hardly in this story at all,” he pointed out.  “She’s there at the beginning and then she doesn’t come back.”  It was an interesting point, and I asked the class if they thought Frances’s mom knew about Thelma’s tricks.  They all agreed that she seemed to know Frances should be careful around Thelma, but Frances didn’t actually tell her mother about the sneaky trading.  “Do you think she should have told her mom?” I asked.  “Oh, yes!” most of the class chorused (carefully repeating key points of our recent conversations about telling an adult if someone is bullying you).  As an adult, I’m torn.  On the one hand, I’d like to think my students would tell me about a situation like the one in the book.  When I was a child, I tended to be quick to look for adult assistance, and I probably would have voted with the majority in my class to advise Frances to tell her mother.  And yet … part of the charm of this story is the way these two girls experience this conflict and change because of it.  When Thelma realizes she’s been tricked, she tells Frances she’ll have to “be careful” when she’s playing with her.  Frances asks her, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”  I can’t help feeling that an adult mediator might have helped Frances to get back the tea set, but might not have helped her get to that understanding of friendships, that most powerful of lessons from this book. A recent post from the “Motherlode” blog at the New York Times echoes the importance of this lesson, calling it a Secret of Adulthood.  I’m also reminded of Michael Thompson’s excellent book about children’s relationships, Best Friends, Worst Enemies, in which he writes about the importance of healthy conflict for children’s social development.

Good conflict can create good relationships … and it certainly creates memorable literature.  If this book was part of your childhood, it’s certainly worth rereading and sharing with the children in your life.  Happy reading!