You may have noticed that my username is dragon-related. I’ve got a thing for dragons. A while ago, I looked all over the Internet for dragon art, printed out a bunch of them, and taped them on my wall. I’m a dragon nut. Why do I obsess about dragons? Well, I learned to read with a dragon. Yes, there was If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Love You Forever for when I was a wee young one, but when I started the more advanced children’s books the book I fell in love with was The Dragonling by Jackie French Koller.
The Dragonling is the story of a young boy named Darek who befriends a young dragon he names Zantor. Darek is from a culture built around dragon slaying as a rite of passage where boys become men, and he starts out excited for his time when he’d be able to hunt a dragon himself. The Dragonling world is essentially ours of medieval times with a few differences, such as having two moons and more diverse wildlife. After the townsmen return with the corpse of a slain dragon, Darek discovers a dragonling living in the dead dragon’s marsupial pouch. As the dragonling is cute and lovable, Darek decides to escort him back to the Valley of the Dragons before his people find out and kill the dragonling.
Darek soon learns that dragons are peaceful, herbivorous creatures that need not be hunted, and when the men come to rescue him and kill the dragons he stands up to his father. “If killing without cause was what it took to be a man, he [Darek] wanted no part of it.” He attempts to protect the dragonling and other dragons from the hunters, enraging the men. The women of the town, the mothers of sons dead from dragon slaying trips, and Darek’s own mother stand beside him between the men and the dragons, and convince the men to lay down their arms.
The Dragonling is a lighthearted friendship story with cool creatures and some serious themes, such as a cycle of violence based in prejudice and misinformation. The townspeople believe that dragon slaying is a good thing because dragons supposedly are carnivorous and dangerous, and are reluctant to consider anything else because this is based so completely in their culture. It takes an unlikely friendship between two young boys (well, males) of each side to end the dragon slaying practice.
There is some discussion of gender roles, with Darek’s mother urging him to have the values of respecting others, being nurturing, and working hard, while he idolizes his father’s ways of proving masculinity through violent shows of strength. Darek learns to respect his mother’s values through his friendship with Zantor, whose species has been demonized, and he and the mothers bring about peace. Upon learning that dragon slaying has no moral value, Darek’s father collapses in tears, something Darek never saw a man do. The Dragonling discourages harmful memes associated with masculinity, instead promoting memes associated with femininity.
I believe it’s notable that Darek must first stand up to his father alone, and is later joined by his protective mother. Darek finds his own path, chooses to be subversive to a parent, and is then enforced by the other. It’s a coming of age event of a different sort from the initial idea of what it would be.
The Dragonling is a simple little book, and it seems odd to analyze it now, but it’s what got me into reading. And now I’m a book- and dragon-lover. Thank you, Ms. Koller. Your imagination served to inspire me a good deal.