Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon
illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett
Book review by Sabine Algur
Published in 1947, this light-hearted tale of adventure and the fantastic won a Newbery Honor in 1948, and has enchanted children ever since. What exactly constitutes this book's charm that it continues to thrill the curious minds and hearts of little darlings everywhere?
The title, My Father's Dragon, itself is engaging as it induces thoughts of magic and inspires an intense desire to know more - how did the father come to possess a grand, mythical creature?
Also, the words "my father" are two words that are used so very often throughout the story. It is perhaps its greatest element of warmth, supporting every child's vision of their father as a hero, thereby creating a special attachment to the story.
And as soon as we begin reading, there are feelings of nostalgia as well, with the opening line:
One cold rainy day when my father was a little boy…
And the little cherubs who are listening will at once light up with excitement on hearing this, because they have now discovered My Father's Dragon is not about the narrator's father as an adult but as a child like themselves.
Elmer Elevator (which is a superb name, by the way), the narrator's father, is nine years old when he meets an old, talking alley cat. On providing the cat shelter and nourishment in his own home, despite his mother's warnings, Elmer's compassion and kindness encourage the cat to tell him about his journey to an extraordinary pair of islands - The Island of Tangerina and the Wild Island - where a baby dragon resides in misery, forced to ferry animals across the river that separates the islands.
Were he to free the dragon from its captivity, the dragon would, no doubt, only be too pleased to satisfy Elmer's desire to fly.
Elmer is moved by the cat's description of the poor baby dragon's plight and immediately begins preparing for its rescue.
And what do you imagine he packs to survive the dangers he is bound to face? He places 25 peanut butter sandwiches, six apples, chewing gum, a toothbrush and toothpaste, hair ribbons, a comb, six magnifying glasses and many lollipops into a backpack that belonged to his own father and stows away on a ship set for Tangerina.
It is with these very items that Elmer hoodwinks several tigers, a rhinoceros, a lion, two boars, a gorilla and crocodiles to save the dragon and fly back home.
The character of Elmer Elevator is one of the major reasons to admire Ruth Stiles' writing. While reading My Father's Dragon, we learn that adults shudder in fear at the very mention of Wild Island, for those who dared to venture into its depths have never been seen again.
Yet, here is a young boy whose determination to find the dragon does not waver despite these fear-inducing rumours. He remains clear-headed and resourceful just when we think that think that things have taken a turn for the worse.
The story assures us that when the time comes, children, too, can make their own decisions and take care of themselves.
Elmer is able to distract each animal long enough to move on safely, because each of them has amusingly unique problems that his backpack can supply solutions to based on Elmer's own stealth, ingenuity and quick wit. He is first sighted by a mouse who speaks in playful spoonerisms:
Queer, queer, what a dear little dock! I mean, dear, dear, what a queer little rock!
I must smell tumduddy. I mean, I must tell somebody.
This mouse plays the role of an informer, telling two uppity, meddlesome 'private eye' boars of the strange 'rock' he has just seen. They decide to look into the matter, and while making their deductions upon the invasion, every dialogue between the two pompous boars is bound to make you giggle.
Elmer decides the best way to deal with the mouse and the boars is to remain hidden from their vision. Then, he comes across
These delightfully absurd character sketches and plot twists are so cleverly handled that children and adults alike will find themselves bursting into laughter, especially if you're reading it aloud and doing different voices for each of the animals.
(Though the book is just as incredible when you read it independently, really, the best way to enjoy this book is to read it aloud to the children.)
My Father's Dragon is splendidly decorated with warm, whimsically comical black and white illustrations done by Ruth Stiles' stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett.
These illustrations help children visualize what they read/hear and succeeds in transporting us to another plane of dream by stimulating our imagination.
In addition to Stiles' stepmother being responsible for the illustrations, Stiles' husband-to-be Peter Kahn designed the maps of Tangerina and Wild Island, which are all the better for a sense of direction and further immersion into the world of the story.
After reading the lines aloud, show children the images that follow for a smoother flow and clearer connections.
My Father's Dragon is a refreshing story that fuses the bizarre with the beautiful, and the dangerous with a quirky sense of humor. It is a wonderful fantasy that will invite only timeless love and appreciation by the reader and the listener alike, children and adults everywhere. It is also an effective means of communicating and spreading the valuable qualities of kindness and compassion, courage and perseverance, creativity and astuteness, and most importantly, friendship.
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