Oct. 1st, 2012 02:52 pm
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SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartmann

Decades ago, the Queen of a human kingdom and the King of the dragons worked out a peace treaty, still not completely trusted by anyone. Since then, the dragons (who call themselves saars) have decided that humans can be interesting. They take human form, or sarantras, and come to the city to explore human ways. This is the world that Seraphina has grown up in. She’s recently moved to the city and taken a job as assistant to the court musician, even though her Secret means that she must keep to herself, trusting no one and desperately lonely. A close friend of the family and her teacher, Orma, is a sarantras who has the special scholar’s license not to wear the visible badge. From dealing with him, she has learned to understand how dragons think – a Vulcan-like mindset that prizes scientific calculation and considers emotion dangerous and unreliable. This skill brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, a bastard engaged to Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the still reigning queen who made the treaty in the first place. Her musical skill, meanwhile, was on display at the funeral for the much-loved prince whose was recently found murdered in dragon-like fashion in the wilderness. The talent lands her a position teaching Princess Glisselda harpsichord, while Kiggs decides that she’s the perfect person to assist in the investigation of the prince’s death. In her personal life, Seraphina’s mind is inhabited with people, some more and some less human in shape, who will take over her mind with visions if she doesn’t carefully visit and talk to the avatars of them in the garden she’s created for them in her mind. She’s always assumed this was her mind just being a little weird on her – until she meets one of them in person.

Seraphina is a character after my own heart. My lonely teen soul had a hard time identifying with any character for whom making friends came easily, and Seraphina’s loneliness brought me right back to that time. Happily for her, by the end of the book she’s found a happier place, one that felt honestly won. There was also a lot about music, and just reading about her playing the oud without her plectrum made me smile in geeky recognition. OK, I’ve never played an oud or used a plectrum, but I loved that Hartmann used real historical instruments, and Seraphina and I had flute, voice and keyboard in common. This is set in a beautifully realistic Renaissance world with a saint-based religion. It’s full of politics, music, personal discovery as well as the dragons, with some romance thrown in for good measure. While there is a villain in the end, for the most part, the sides are drawn in shades of gray, with neither humans nor dragons being the Enemy, and understandable motives on all sides. We have it in teen, and while Seraphina really is going through teen problems, the sex and violence are both low enough to make this fine for advanced younger readers. I would happily recommend this to anyone who identified with Menolly in Dragonsong.
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book coverThe Dragon of Cripple Creek by Troy HowellWhy shouldn’t there be dragons in the Wild West? After all, the west had gold and mountains, both good dragon factors. That’s the premise this book is built on. It’s set, though, in the present time. Katlin, aka Kalamity Kat, is crazy about gold. Her family is driving cross country for a new job for her father, leaving her mother behind, comatose in a nursing home. They might be broke, but that doesn’t stop Kat from begging until they stop for a tour at the Mollie Kathleen mine for a tour. There, she falls behind, gets lost, and discovers Ye, an ancient and ailing dragon hiding in the bottom of the mine with his considerable hoard. He’s friendly and eloquent and mostly convinces her to leave the gold behind, as deceased dragons turn into gold. This scene, where he tells her what he needs to regain his health, made my son cry when I told it to him as a bedtime story. Naturally, though, the one little lump of gold that she couldn’t quite part with falls out in front of media cameras when she finds her way out. This leads to a storm threatening to become another gold rush, with lots of pressure on Katlin to reveal the location of the gold in the supposedly played-out mine. In order to protect Ye, Katlin will have to confess the truth to her big brother and gain his support for her plan. There’s a lot of fast action, sadly only a couple of scenes with the dragon, and a whole lot of thinking about ethics. That makes this both fun and surprisingly deep for a book with a premise as light-hearted as dragons in the Wild West.
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book coverSt. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I am writing up this old favorite because, after several attempts at finding the perfect book, this is the one that Lightening Bolt settled on for doing his big Book Project on at school. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators of all time, and this book is a fine example of her work. These are glorious full-page pictures (watercolor and ink if I am not mistaken), with borders and marginalia around the facing page of text. It’s a long picture book for older readers (LB was disappointed not to be able to read it to his class) and the text is beautifully written. Every time that LB asks for it at bedtime on an already late night, I look for a way to abridge the text to make it a more manageable length. Every time I end up just reading the whole thing, because the words are just right, with strong metaphors and alliterations adding to the medieval feel of the book. And for kids too old for little-kid picture books and not quite ready for all chapter books, this is a book detailed and exciting enough to capture.

Crossposted to and .
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book coverHiro Dragon Warrior by Bobbie JG Weiss and David Cody Weis. Pictures by Robbie Short. It might not be perfect for every child, or even every little boy, but here is a book that is, according to my son, exactly perfect for him. It is an easy reader, comic-book style, featuring young dragons learning martial arts and using them to rescue stolen treasure. There are two volumes out right now; alas, just old enough that it doesn’t look like more will be published. Still, easy readers in this particular category – high interest for boys without media tie-ins – are hard to come by. This was enough of a find for us to buy both the books, rather than just borrowing from the library as we usually do.
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book coverEveryone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Jay Williams. Illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Here is an old-but-good one, fortuantely still available from Amazon as well as at my library. Young orphan Han is a cheerful street sweeper who tends to the gate of the city of Wu, between China and the land of the Wild Horsemen. One day, a messenger brings word that attack by the Wild Horsemen is imminent. The Mandarin calls together his advisors - the Captain of the Army, the Leader of the Merchants, the Chief of the Workmen, and the Wisest of Wise Men – to discuss what to do. They decide to pray to the Great Cloud Dragon to save them. Shortly thereafter, Han meets an ragged and fat old man at the city gate, who says he is the dragon and asks to be taken to the Mandarin. Naturally, the Mandarin and his advisors refuse to believe the man – they all know what a dragon looks like. Only Han is polite and hospitable to the old man, and his courtesy of course saves the day. This is a beautiful, slightly twisted fairy tale from Williams, whose “The Practical Princess” I remember vividly reading in Cricket as a child. This is both absorbing on the surface and provides plenty for more conversation. The beautiful pictures are recognizably the prolific and versatile Mercer Mayer’s fairy tale style, but also clearly Asian in palette and layout. Lightning Bolt loved it so much that we read it regularly for six weeks before I brought it back to the library.
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My son is really, really into dragons right now. To the point where he wouldn’t let me tell him a story about an intrepid princess defeating a dragon, because he likes dragons better.

book coverHow to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell Young Hiccup, about 11, is about to undergo his initiation rights. In his Viking tribe, the Hairy Hooligans, all potential members must prove that they are heroes by capturing and training and adolescent dragon – the bigger and fiercer the better. Hiccup’s father is the chief, so there’s extra pressure on him. Hiccup, however, is too timid to pick out the fiercest dragon from the cave, and also not good at yelling, the preferred and only known method of training dragons. This felt to me like a story that was almost really good. Hiccup can communicate with his dragon, Toothless, even though it’s only a Common or Garden, by speaking to it in Dragonese. But though he eventually saves the day, he never actually manages to train his dragon or convince him that cooperating could be beneficial to both of them. If he was developing a new and improved dragon training method, that he should end up with a trained dragon. Also, the combination of a lot of 9-year-old level potty humor and a high level of bullying and social aggression left rather a bad taste in my mouth. Lightening Bolt thought that both of these were fine – Hiccup was nice to his friends, after all.

We had a date to see the movie together as well. What a difference! They changed so much that only the basic setting and the character names remained, but most of the changes actually felt like improvements to me. OK, maybe they didn’t really need to have quite so many fight scenes – but Hiccup did manage to train his dragon where everyone else was trying to kill them - and the bullying levels were turned down. The only odd thing was that they killed off Hiccup’s mother, alive and well in the book, seemingly only for a single joke and to complicate Hiccup’s relationship with his father. It’s rare for me to prefer a movie version to the book, especially if I’ve read the book first, but this is one case where I did.
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book coverThree Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Read by Robert Sevra This is a sweet old-fashioned story of young Elmer Elevator and his adventures rescuing first a baby dragon and then the baby dragon’s family. The most startling thing is how little trouble Elmer gets into at home when he goes missing for days at a time. I was highly amused at Gannet’s proclivity towards counting what Elmer eats – fourteen tangerines or five Fig Newtons. Lightening Bolt and I enjoyed listening to this in the car. I don’t think he’ll want it over and over again, because it just doesn’t have the adrenaline he’s looking for these days. Still, if you are looking for a not-too-scary tale of dragons for your child, this is a solid choice.


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