Hey again. So I’m continuing to prep for the exhibition by reading old classics of children’s literature that I either don’t remember very well or somehow never got around to reading in the first place. One such book is My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.
This was a fun little book – part adventure, part fantasy, part trickster tale. The story is utterly original, and told in a clear matter-of-fact style with a healthy dose of humor. It’s framed in a unique way, too – the unnamed narrator is describing the childhood adventures of his/her father, which gives a sort of tall-tale flavor to the narrative. It also makes for a weird tension between the past and present – it’s a little disorienting to keep hearing a little boy being referred to as “my father.” At its core, though, this sweet, funny, rolicking little book is about slavery.
If you haven’t read it either, here’s the gist: a little boy named Elmer Elevator (yes, really) befriends an alley cat who tells him about a remote island inhabited by wild animals. The animals have enslaved a young dragon to fly their lazy asses back and forth across the river that divides their island. Elmer is understandably moved by the dragon’s plight. Since he’s mad at his mom for kicking the cat out of their cellar, and since he’s always wanted to fly, he decides to go rescue the dragon in the hopes of getting a free ride or two. He fills his backpack with a few supplies, sneaks aboard a boat disguised as cargo and eventually makes it to the island. Once there he makes use of his wits and a handful of toiletries to trick and cajole his way past the dangerous animals and save the dragon.
Aside from a few standard-issue icky bits of the sort one expects from mid-20th c. books (i.e., the mother “whips” Elmer for bringing the cat home), the story holds up well. Here’s where the odd “my father” aspect comes in handy, I think – it puts the events vaguely in the past, but doesn’t assign it a particular era. It’s kind of a “once upon a time” effect.
The description of the dragon’s suffering under the cruel demands of the island animals is disturbing, without being too graphic – they “twist his wings” if he disobeys, and they work him relentlessly without letting him rest. He turns out to be a sweetheart, of course, and he and Elmer ride off more or less into the sunset, bound for more adventures. I haven’t read the other two books in the series, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland yet – I’ll be curious to see if anything about the narrator or the grown-up Elmer is ever revealed.
The illustrations are… perhaps a bit excessively cute for today’s audiences. They’re drawn in black grease crayon, and everything is rounded and solid and shadowed, kind of like what Chris Van Allsburg’s art probably looked like in high school. The dragon is more cartoony-cute than scary, described as having yellow and blue stripes, with red eyes, horn and feet, and golden wings. The inside illustrations are all black-and-white, though, so I guess you’ll have to take the alley cat’s word on that.
All in all, a good story, perfect for early-elementary-aged readers who are hungry for fantasy and adventure but aren’t quite ready to tackle a full-length chapter book yet.