Message in a Bottle
Long Live the Dragon

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My 19-month-old twins like Mercerdale and Luther Burbank, but their favorite outdoor play spot on the island is Deane’s Children’s park. It’s my preference too because the lush surrounding trees and ferns mean they can’t take off running as easily.

There’s another big reason to love this gem: the dragon. The original 50-foot, six ton dragon was created in 1965 by an artist named Kenton Pies. Just this past year, the Parks and Recreation Department tracked down Pies in Montana and commissioned him to rebuild the dragon. Late last fall, the new and improved structure made an impressive debut. Generations of families who grew up playing on the old dragon brought their own kids to make a tradition out of the new one. My kids love crawling through the stomach, playing peek-a-boo around the jaws, and cautiously sliding tummy-first down the tail.

As you can imagine, the real-life dragon has inspired much talk about dragons beyond the park. Now when we read books with dragons in them, we can ask the kids, “Where’s the dragon?” and they can point to it, even if they aren’t saying the word yet. The best is when we are walking towards the park and I ask them where the dragon is. They know exactly what I mean, and the fingers immediately point and a bunch of unintelligible baby-gibberish comes pouring out (which I translate to: “Yay! Dragon! Yay!”). Basically, dragons are a hit.

My children aren’t the only ones who love dragons, as James will attest. As soon as he saw the subject of this post he jumped in with such a long list of dragon books that I nearly choked on my coffee. Not surprisingly, James’s spunky 3-year-old daughter loves dragons too. So after some careful culling, here are some favorite dragon books from both of us to fuel the fire:

imageDragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin: Kids always laugh out loud at this silly one. You don’t want to know what happens when the dragons eat hot salsa. Not a good mix with fire-breath.

imageWhen a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore: Word to the wise: don’t ignore your kid at the beach. The hero of this story builds a sandcastle while his parents tune him out. Lo and behold, a dragon moves into his creation. When no one believes the boy’s warning, the dragon runs amok.

imageThe Best Pet of All by David LaRochelle: Unable to convince his parents to get him a dog, a boy negotiates a pet dragon if he can find one. Well, he does, and the dragon is a terrible pet. When the dragon won’t leave, they have no choice but to scare him offwith a dog.

imageHush, Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn: This one is a take-off on the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” and features a mother dragon catching various humans to serve as her baby dragon’s bedtime snack.

imagePuff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow: No dragon list would be complete without Puff, of the song of the same name. Yarrow found a cute way to make the potentially sad ending more upbeat, so no need to fear the final pages. Sing your way to Honalee.

imageEast Dragon, West Dragon by Robyn Eversole: Two dragons who are scared of each other are forced to meet and overcome their fears. Great illustrations and a nice little message about friendship.

imageHave You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light: Here’s the newest dragon book on the shelf. This is much more than a counting book. It’s impossible not to laugh at that bright green dragon doing goofy city activities.

imageLovabye Dragon by Barbara Joosse: This sweet story about a girl and a dragon who love each other makes dragons look about as scary and dangerous as teddy bears.

image—Miriam

Fancy Bred in the Heart and in the Head

This morning I read my daughter a story featuring dragons, a wizard, and (inexplicably) three musketeers. While I’m typing this, my son is reading yet another volume in an ongoing saga about intelligent wolves. Fairly typical kid stuff, really. But their book choices lead me to ask again a question I’ve posed more than once before in different ways on Message in a Bottle: Why don’t most adults include fantasy as one of the colors on their literary palette?

Almost all children are unfazed by tales of ghosts, talking animals, and magic spells, but most of us put that sort of thing aside as we age. That wasn’t always the case—the folk stories collected by Aesop, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm were originally intended for a primarily adult audience, who must have found a great deal of entertainment and enlightenment in them as they were handed down over hundreds of years. It seems to have been the rise of the so-called realistic novel in the 18th and 19th centuries that pushed fantasy and adventure to the margins, as readers began to crave the kind of insight into human nature that comes from examining individual characters rather than archetypal figures.

Now, I’m a grownup who appreciates the drama of everyday life as much as the next guy, and who understands that basic human emotions are just about the most powerful forces at work in the world. I don’t want my fiction populated by cardboard cutouts who wave tinfoil swords at each other while Evil Casts Its Mighty Shadow Across The Land. I also don’t want to read about people who live in houses just like mine and drive cars just like I do and never confront any problem that I might not encounter on any given day. Ideally, I want a writer who can stretch my imagination and show me the unexpected, but do it in a convincing, grounded way. Fortunately, we’re in something of a golden age where authors like that are concerned.

Graham Joyce is a perfect example. His most recent novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, kicks off with the surprising reappearance in a family’s life of the daughter who vanished twenty years before. From the reactions of her emotionally withered parents, who don’t seem able to cope except by treating her as the teen she was two decades earlier, to the responses of her ex-boyfriend, whose life was ruined by police suspicions, the devastating effects of her loss and the shocks induced by her return are beautifully rendered. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent, accurate depiction of the different ways trauma can affect those left behind. Even more unsettling, though, is the explanation for her absence that slowly emerges. Can she really have been spirited away by fairies? The girl herself admits the ridiculousness of the idea, and freely submits to the ministrations of a psychologist, but why would she invent such a story? And why does she seem so much younger than she should? It would be more of a crime than usual to spoil a plot such as this, but suffice it to say that the impossible comes to seem merely implausible, and perhaps even inevitable, as Joyce spins out his pages. Whether the answers are ultimately realistic or fantastical doesn’t matter by the end, since every character’s every action is so believable.

Joyce’s prior novel, The Silent Land, is a similar combination of truth and mystery that I think is even better. In it, a married couple takes a ski vacation in France and gets caught up in an avalanche. When they struggle off the mountain and back to their lodge, they find the town completely depopulated. As they await rescue after this apparent evacuation, strange events occur that call their entire lives into question. The suspense of their situation is formidable, but what makes the book work as well as it does is the portrait of the marriage at its heart. Joyce hasn’t created this pair simply to put them through the wringer of his plot, he’s done the reverse and engineered events to illuminate their humanity. There’s a real sense of history that the two share, and the imperfections they reveal make their relationship all the richer. An extreme scenario such as this is exactly what is meant by the phrase “a test of character,” and reading The Silent Land even in the heat of summer, you’ll feel the chill of their crisis because of the warmth they share.

             

Joyce is not alone in his ability to balance reality and fantasy, of course. The most famous name in this category is probably Stephen King, whose finest work has this quality in spades, but there’s also Jonathan Carroll, whose directness and simplicity lend his fiction authority even when he’s at his most bizarre, describing talking dogs who help save the world from apocalypse. He’s like a guy on the next bar stool who tells unbelievable yarns—you know they can’t be true, but his details are specific and his grasp of human behavior is strong, and he doesn’t seem to care whether you’re impressed or not, so maybe they’re true after all? One seat over in that same saloon, you might find Jeffrey Ford, author of The Shadow Year and the forthcoming story collection Crackpot Palace, who has an equally wild imagination and an equally assured, no-bull tone. The very best of the lot, though, may be Kelly Link, whose collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters are must reading for anyone who wants to see how psychological acuity and flights of fancy can come together in marvelously productive ways. She’ll be appearing in Seattle on July 17th as part of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, helping to nurture the next generation of creative cross-genre authors. Go see her if you can.

—James

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