This book was originally purchased when I was looking for books about Chinese News Year. It is highly recommended on many educational sites as an excellent multi cultural resource, and it is, but it is more than that as well. It has recently been brought out again as my youngest has taken quite an interest in dragons.
"The Last Dragon" tells the story of a young Chinese American boy who is sent to spend the summer with a great aunt in Chinatown. Young Peter is very unhappy about being sent away. He wants to spend the summer with his friends in his own familiar territory, not a strange aunt in a very strange place, but his parents insist that he must get to know his aunt as well. His aunt is kind, but insists on manners and protocol and the fact that everyone around Peter is elderly probably does not help the child to fit in. Peter is quite homesick when he spots the dragon. The dragon is a old tattered, covered in dust and cobwebs and a very sad specimen indeed, But Peter is determined to see the dragon restored to its former glory and paraded the streets before he must go home at the end of the summer.
I'm sure everyone will realise that Peter will succeed in his quest to repair the dragon and find the dancers for a dragon dance at the end, but it is how he goes about getting fixed that makes the story. This is a lovely story that not only bridges two cultures, but also closes the gap between young and old as all work together. Peter does odd jobs for the shopkeepers in trade for repairs on his dragon. He befriends the ladies who come to play mahjongg with his aunt, and they give him ideas as to how to get the dragon fixed, as well as surprising him with the gift of a set of horns for the dragons crest. He learns all about Chinatown, it's people and customs as well as it's streets and shops as he runs errands over the summer, but he also learns about friendship, and the value of sharing the wisdom of his elders. At last the dragon is almost ready but dragon eyes are special. The dragon will not be able to see with just any eyes. This mirrors folktales I have read from China such as "Dragon Dot Eyes". Of course this will be solved as well. Not only is Peter overjoyed with his dragon, but he has brought a memory from their own youth back to the older people as the dragon dances through Chinatown.
The illustrations in this book are bright and colourful and extremely well done. You can see the wonder in the child's face as he gazes a the dragon and the tired but caring look on his aunt's face. The pictures show a world very different from the one we live in. The shops are bright and colourful with strange foods and stranger medicines. My son did notice dead lizards, sea horses and antlers in the Chines herbal medicine shop and I don't think he cared much for these, but I explained that people used to use these believe these things had medicinal value. This may be upsetting to some children, but we use animals for food, so we haven't too much room to be judgemental. The illustration of the kite shop was much more popular, and my sons were both fascinated by the beautiful kites.
My oldest son was 5 when I bought this. He enjoyed this book, and especially loved the dragon at the end. He is also familiar with other stories about dragons eyes so understood the significance of this. This book was purchased as part of our home curriculum, to help my son learn about other places and cultures. At the time we were studying China. It served it's purpose very well, and occasionally was chosen just to read. I have not rated this down because it has never made it t the ranks of very favourite stories in our house. Competition for that is very high with the number of books we have, and it was purchased primarily for educational purposes. The fact that the story is good enough to be read at all for pleasure makes this book a good buy in my opinion.
I have brought this back out for my youngest son now, who is only four. At this age I don't worry much about education, I simply want books to be fun, but I do like the odd book that has a moral or teaches something as well. He has enjoyed this book, and my oldest enjoyed listening to one more time as well. Again, this book has not made it to the favourites shelf. It will not be read over and over until the children know every word by heart, but it has been enjoyed, and I feel that it does teach the children something.
I would recommend this book primarily to teachers or home educators, but also to parents who want to share stories and traditions from other cultures with their children. It is more fun to listen to than most non fiction books on an another culture, but I feel you get a much a better grasp of what it would be like to be a part of this community from this story than you would ever get from a book of facts. This captures the relationships between members of the community, and a real spirit of the people living there.
My favourite part of this book though is the way it crosses the age divide. I feel this book would be ideal for a child a bit unsure about going away to stay with relatives, or one who is just a bit unsure of an older relative who is very formal and perhaps a bit harder for children to relate to. I also like the fact that it encourages respect for older people, something I very sadly see as lacking so frequently now. Of course this must be taught by the parents as well, but I do think reading books frequently showing how older people should be treated helps a child accept this as just the way things are. It never occurred to me when I was young to be disrespectful of a pensioner. In addition to modelling proper respect for older people, this book also shows a child, that older people can become friends as well, that they still have a lot to offer a younger person, and a wealth of wisdom to be shared. I think we are becoming a society where children spend less and less time with extended family, and as a result miss out on so much of the magic and wisdom that only the older family members can impart to the children. I can't quite find the right words to describe it, but this book does capture something I think many of us our losing in the modern world. For this reason it gets a full 5 stars from me.
There is a very wide range of prices for this book. Amazon sells new hardback copies for £9.99 or paperback for £6.95. The Book depository has paperback copies for £4.22. Used copies are widely available from only £2.81 including postage from Amazon.