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Herb the Vegetarian Dragon - Jules Bass, Debbie Harter

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Paperback: 32 pages / Publisher: Barefoot

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      14.10.2012 10:29
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      Not the best dragon tale

      In the forest of Nogard, Meathook and his fellow dragons like nothing better than burning, pillaging and devouring knights and princesses. However, one dragon is different. Herb is a vegetarian dragon and he likes nothing better than tending his vegetable patch and making new soups. When Bernard the Bold and his brave knights decide that they've had enough of dragons raiding their castles and eating their people, they come up with a plan. Any dragon that is captured will be made to walk the plank into the castle moat, where hungry alligators are waiting! When Herb is captured, his prospects look grim, until a little girl makes a plea to save his life. How can she convince the people that this vegetarian dragon won't harm them? And what of Meathook and the other carnivores? Are they capable of changing their ways and, more to the point, do they really want to?

      My children were always big fans of dragon stories and I always enjoyed reading such stories to them. This book has the potential to be a good dragon story. It contains some wonderful, brightly coloured illustrations, which are rich in detail and atmosphere and the story has just the right amount of perilous activity and suspense to keep young readers wanting to turn the pages. However, there are a few things that let it down, in my opinion.

      First of all there is the character of Herb. It's clear that the author wants us to think of Herb as the hero of the story, the one whose actions make a big difference to the community in which he lives. However, to me Herb comes across as a rather passive character. At one point in the narrative, Meathook tells Herb he will help him escape from captivity on one condition - that Herb starts to eat meat and becomes "one of us." Herb turns this offer down. He states that he would rather take his chances than go against his principles. All very noble, you may think, but is being a martyr necessarily heroic? Thank heavens for the little girl who steps forward to fight Herb's corner, because, left to his own devices he would've been gobbled up by the alligators!

      Herb is actually rather irritating with his sanctimonious manner. In fact, in my view the carnivores, like Meathook, seem more worthy or respect. After all, they are the ones who have to make big changes. These dragons have been devouring princesses and knights for generations, so it is kind of a big deal for them to contemplate giving that up! Herb doesn't have to give up anything though. All he has to do is go back to tending his vegetable patch. I don't think he even thanks the little girl! Yet, Herb is the one who gets all the credit.

      I don't usually have a problem with stories that set out a moral message, but I don't like that message to be too 'preachy.' I feel that is the case here. I also feel that there is a bit of a contradiction going on. On the one hand, the story tells us the importance of compromise and we see the dragons eventually taking a vote on how they should live, which all seems very democratic and positive. On the other hand though, we have an equally strong message being sent out that you should be true to yourself and never compromise your principles. You could say that Herb was a good role model because he holds fast to his vegetarian principles, but you could also say he was stubborn. Let's face it, if we all refused to budge an inch on things that mattered to us, there wouldn't be much progress in the world and you don't ever really feel that Herb makes much attempt to look at things from any other point of view than his own. I'm not sure this makes him a particularly good role model.

      I actually thought the book was going to be funnier than it was. The idea of a vegetarian dragon seemed rather clever, and I thought it could've been an absolute hoot, but I don't feel Herb is a strong enough character to bring the best out of the story. He's something of a stereotypical vegetarian (albeit in dragon form) Think of how vegetarians used to be portrayed in the 1980s, when everyone thought of them as cranky odd bods who were out of touch with the real world. All Herb needs really is a pair of Jesus Sandals and a beard and he would fit that stereotype perfectly. We see him pottering about in the garden, calm and peaceful, in a world of his own and totally oblivious to the peril that the carnivores are having to grapple with. It seems a bit of an old fashioned portrayal of a vegetarian really.

      It would have been better if Herb was energetic and dynamic and actively involved in his community like the other dragons, but he's a virtual recluse. The idea that a vegetarian must automatically be a peace-loving, out of touch weirdo is a bit outdated and probably a tad insulting too. After all, a lot of children are vegetarian these days and they don't want to be perceived as 'different' just because of what they choose to eat and not eat. Likewise, children who do eat meat don't want to be made to feel that there is something 'bad' about doing so and that they aren't as noble as their vegetarian counterparts.

      It isn't completely unfunny, to be fair. There's a picture of a dragon with a rather surprised looking knight caught between its jaws, which appealed to my sense of humour. Throughout the book, the range of facial expressions shown by the knights is rather amusing. I also like the scene where Herb is holding the soup ladle in his tail as he prepares a vat of Lakewater Veggie Slurp. There's also a delightfully gruesome poem that the carnivore dragons recite as they pound the floor with their tails and plot revenge on the knights. I'm sure many children would enjoy joining in with that one and chanting it at the top of their voices.

      If you have a child who is particularly sensitive about animal cruelty, they may not enjoy seeing poor old Herb in captivity with his jaws bound with rope, being dragged by his tail and put in a cell with a chain round his neck. That said, some children like grisly elements and so it really does depend on the child. The idea of walking the plank into alligator-infested waters isn't perhaps the safest material for a bedtime story if you have a child who is prone to nightmares though.

      Jules Bass deserves some credit for putting a different spin on the traditional dragon story and, as stories go, it flows quite well and there's certainly plenty of action in it. It also introduces children to the words 'herbivore' and 'carnivore', which could lead to further discussions and link in with science work, comparing the diets of different animals.

      It does raise some interesting discussion points, such as how to live in harmony with others and respect differences. This could be a useful book to read to children when addressing behavioural issues, bullying, etc. I would say that this book is suitable to read aloud to children aged about 5 to 6 years. From around age 7 many children should be able to read it independently. It does have a few complicated words but the pictures provide handy cues to assist the reader. What I feel spoils the book, however, is the vegetarian dragon's moral superiority which just strikes the wrong tone in a children's story and makes it all a bit too sombre. Ardent dragon fans will no doubt still enjoy it, however.

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