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This book tells the story of Little Dragon who is unable to fly, breathe fire, scare people or do any of the things associated with dragons. It makes him very sad until one day he meets a young boy called Jago. Jago discovers that there is something unusual and very special about Little Dragon - his tears are made of gold. Jago takes Little Dragon home to live with his family. How will they all get on? Will Little Dragon ever learn how to do dragony things? All is revealed as this rather charming story unfolds. Perfect for reading aloud to young children or for slightly older children to read independently, it is a story predominantly about friendship and acceptance. It will strike a chord with any child who has ever felt the need to fit in and has felt inferior for not being able to do the things their peers or siblings can do. It sends out the positive message that people (like dragons) are unique and that we should be proud of the things that make us different. We should focus on the things we can do rather than the things we can't.
I like the way the author has taken the traditional dragon legend and turned it on its head. Most children will be familiar with tales of scary dragons, flying around and scorching things with their fire, so it's an amusing contrast to meet Little Dragon. Far from being able to battle a knight on horseback, he can't even frighten a baby, which just gurgles and hits him over the head with its teddy. As for breathing fire, children will be amused by Little Dragon's attempts to achieve this by eating red hot chilli peppers covered with more pepper. All that happens is he lets out an enormous burp. It's fun for children to try to guess what will happen each time Little Dragon attempts to do some dragony things. Encouraging children to make predictions about the story is a great way to focus their attention and develop comprehension skills. Children will want to find out if their guess was right, which will motivate them to keep listening. For example, children can be asked what they think will happen when Little Dragon climbs onto a high statue and attempts to fly, or what the butterflies will do when he tries to scare them, or what Jago will do with all those golden tears.
In many ways this is a parody of a fairy tale. It does have some elements that reminded me of traditional fairy tales. The idea of things being transformed into gold is a feature of a few fairy tales (for example, spinning straw into gold in Rumpelstiltskin) so the dragon's golden tears are a lovely variation on this theme. Children in fairy tales always seem to be wandering through the woods with a basket on their arm, following a path which leads to adventure or peril and here we see Jago collecting mushrooms in the woods when he follows this trail of golden blobs, which leads him to the dragon's cave. So the story would appeal to children who enjoy classic fairy tales, yet it doesn't have the dark aspects or the stereotyping that can sometimes make these old fashioned fairy tales a less popular choice with parents. It's enchanting enough to spur the imagination but down to earth enough for children to be able to relate to, so I feel the author has got the balance just right. I like the way the magical elements are juxtaposed with ordinary, everyday things. We see Jago's mum frying eggs in the kitchen, as if it's the most normal thing in the world to have a dragon in the house.
What I particularly like about this book is that it encourages children to reflect on how good things sometimes come out of situations that seem bad. If Little Dragon had been a fierce, scary dragon, maybe he wouldn't have made friends with Jago and found a family to live with. Perhaps children can think of a few examples from their own experience of disappointments turning out for the best or where wishes have been granted in a totally different way to what they expected. It's a good story for stimulating discussion. For example, what would it be like keeping a dragon that can't do dragony things as a pet? What about a conventional dragon? Would that make a good pet? I recall my daughter making the point that a fire-breathing dragon would keep intruders out of our garden. (We were having a few problems at the time with kids who kept coming into our garden uninvited!) but an undragony dragon would be fun to play sliding down the stairs with.
The illustrations are cute, colourful and expressive. I love the way they convey Little Dragon's different feelings throughout the book, such as frustration, despair, surprise, curiosity etc. However, the one picture that I think lets the book down is the very last one. Without giving away the ending to the book, all I shall say is that the author's final sentence has an ambiguous quality and could lead to confusion about the end result. The sentence needs a picture that makes it absolutely clear. I'm an adult and I took a few seconds to work out what the final illustration was depicting before the penny dropped, so I think it may not be at all clear to a child. This means they could miss the significance of the ending of the story. Up to this point it's a thoroughly engaging story, but it would be disappointing for it to end on a flat note, just because a child had failed to understand what the author was getting at! I realise I'm not alone in thinking this, because I read a review on Amazon where someone also criticised this particular illustration for not being clear enough. It didn't ruin our enjoyment of the book but it meant the ending was not as strong as it could've been and the 'punch line' lost some of its impact.
In spite of its somewhat unsatisfactory ending, it's still a pleasant book, which sends out a valuable message without being twee in its style. For children who love dragons, as my daughter did, I'm sure it will be a popular choice and will stimulate the imagination. For those children who like to draw dragons, the simple style in which Anni Axworthy has drawn Little Dragon makes it easy for children to copy or trace the pictures. The Dragon who couldn't do Dragony Things is available in paperback from Amazon sellers from £1.61.