J must fight dragons these days. And Giants. And Bad guys. If there is imaginary fighting, I have the little dude who wants in. We tried to avoid it for a long time, redirect it maybe, but it is too late for that now. He is a warrior and the only thing to be done about it is to give him the proper storylines of good conquering evil (and know how to play out a dramatic death scene). Also important to a small fellow is the use of cleverness by small boys to overcome the big, terrible, seemingly unconquerable things in his life. I am a huge believer in the deep psychological importance of fairy tales for children. I do see that fairy tales give children safe ways to address their own growth and change and death, an issue he sometimes does find overwhelming and scary and worth a good cry when he’s tired. Fairy tales also give children a way to understand and get creative with struggles and adversaries. So we have been reading books about giants and dragons and knights and small boys. You might notice this list has two books by the same author, E. Nesbit. I have no shame in this, E. Nesbit knew what was going on in the minds of children and her sense of humor shines through 100 years after her stories were originally written.
The number one favorite this week is The Book of Beasts by E. Nesbit. It is the story of a little boy named Lionel who is told one morning that he is to be king, and after all the ceremony he makes his way to the library of his great-great-great-great-great grandfather, the former king and perhaps wizard. Here he finds The Book of Beasts, where every page has a picture of a beautiful or magical creature that comes out of the pages into the world. The butterfly and the blue bird of paradise are innocent enough, but the dragon that comes out of the third page terrorizes the kingdom and eats the soccer team and the parliament. In an effort to save his people, Lionel returns to the book and out comes a cowardly manticora (who does nothing useful at all) and then the beautiful and brave hippogriff. The boy finds a way to trick the dragon back into the book with the help of the hippogriff and saves the kingdom, and all the people the dragon ate, who come out because they could not fit back in the book. This is an abridged story from E. Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons, and even though I hate abridgments on principle, I read the original and think it was done without harm to the original story. The illustrations and abridgment are done by Inga Moore, who does an excellent job keeping with the tone of the fairy tale; it feels like we are pulled into the vague Victorian time that the story was set in. The illustrations are bright and sweet, the facial expressions of the characters particularly amusing even the magical creatures are drawn with very expressive faces.
Second, also by E. Nesbit, is Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Matt Tavares. This story is a telling of Jack, who lives with his mother in a poor cottage and when given the responsibility to sell the family cow in order to have enough money for food, sells it instead for a handful of magic beans. Once they have grown, he climbs the beanstalk to a country once belonging to his family, but now ruled over by a nasty Giant. Jack offers the Giant’s wife some help around the house, and after watching the Giant fall asleep he steals treasure. Despite this trickery he manages to get back into the house two more times in order to steal back the treasure that once belonged to his father. The giant catches him in the last act and tries to chase him down the beanstalk, but Jack cuts it down and defeats the Giant. J loves the part where the Giant Fee Fie Fo Fums, and he likes that Jack wins in the end. The illustrations are lush and green and epic. The Giant is big, but not overly scary. Jack is drawn just between boyhood and adolescence, sometimes more one than the other depending on what he is doing, which supports the quality of Jack himself, both a small boy drawn in by magic beans and a bold adventurer able to fell Giants.
Lastly an actual dragon-killing adventure, St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. The illustrations of this book are so beautiful. The boarders are done with an illuminated manuscript feel, the text surrounded by different herbs and flowers and symbols representing different things in the story. The story is a retelling of a story in Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen and tells the story of St. George of England defeating a horrible dragon over a battle that lasts three days and two nights. The Christian imagery is strong; not only the three days spent in battle with an evil creature to save a countryside, but George sees a heavenly castle before the battle and finds healing in a magical spring and under an apple tree. Even though I was worried that the fighting might be a bit extreme, J loves this book and wants it read over and over, despite the writing being a bit above his comprehension. That is ok with him; the pictures of the knight fighting the dragon will be enough to get him though.
Nesbit, E. (2001) The Book of Beasts. Cambridge: Mass. Candlewick Press
Nesbit, E. (2006) Jack and the Beanstalk. Cambridge: Mass. Candlewick Press.
Hodges, M. (1984) Saint George and the Dragon. Canada. Little, Brown & Company.