For the last several months my middle-grade reading has been all about dragons. I didn’t set out to read Dragon Wishes by Stacy Nyikos and The Last Dragon (Dragon Speaker, book 1) by Cheryl Rainfield as companion books, but I am glad I did.
The Last Dragon is a fantasy adventure and Dragon Wishes is more realistic. Still, the title characters are both fantastic and real in both books. Rainfield and Nyikos have artfully woven in legends about a dragon’s magic powers into the stories but also made them very real to their protagonists.
In both books, the pivotal characters are pre-teens, though they live in different times. Jacob’s story is set in the early 12th Century (The Last Dragon); Alexandra (aka Alex) lives in modern-day San Francisco (Dragon Wishes). Both have lost their parents, and neither is comfortable with their place in the world. These stories are propelled by the characters – how they feel, what they think, the challenges they face, and their efforts to understand and succeed in the “real world.”
In The Last Dragon, the adults in the story are part of the background. Jacob’s mother (and many others) are victims of a Lord Manning, a heartless ruler, and his evil wizard Kain. In fact, Jacob limps because he was injured when Lord Manning burned down his house. As a result, he is viewed as a weakling.
Not long into the story, Jacob and his friend Orson leave their fathers to begin the quest for to find the last dragon and save their community from tyranny. Despite his best efforts to deny it, Jacob can speak to dragons. From Jacob’s perspective, it is improbable that a crippled boy could do any good, and he struggles with the possibility. Ultimately, Orson helps him accept that he (Jacob) must find and protect the last dragon from Lord Manning. If Lord Manning gets there first, evil prevails. As this is book one, it looks to be a lonely quest.
In contrast, Alex is surrounded by people. After her parents’ death, she and her 5-year-old sister Isa have moved from Oklahoma to California to live with their Uncle Norbert, Aunt Ling, and cousin Lori. Neither girl is ready to deal with the grief, and these major changes have magnified the loss. One of Alex’ few links to her former life is a worn red dragon that she sleeps with.
Auntie Ling, in an effort to comfort and connect with the girls, sits with them at bedtime. Over a series of nights, she shares a story that her grandmother shared with her. It is the legend of a young girl who, having traveled to find the dragons in a far-off land, asked them to use their magic to help save mankind from destroying itself. Each night, Alex waits anxiously for the next part of the story, because she is adopting the pieces for herself in hopes that she, too, can call upon the dragons to make her wishes come true.
Alex and Jacob have have personal dragons – some might say demons – that are part of the story. These are children dumped into a world that goes beyond their worst nightmare. Rainfield and Nyikos reveal their substance and depth in the same way an acquaintance becomes a friend – with time and through shared experiences. Jacob and Alex quickly move the reader from seeing them as sympathetic characters to being a companion.
- Preteen boys will instantly see themselves (and their friends) in Jacob and Orson.
- Alex’s emotions, frustrations, relationships, and hopes are palpable. Setting aside the grief of losing her parents, girls will find kinship with Alex.
Although I haven’t addressed it here, the customs of preparing for and celebrating Chinese New Year are part of the story. This is a nice dimension that I found very interesting, and which would be attractive to multicultural families.
The Last Dragon and Dragon Wishes are great selections for classrooms, book clubs with mixed reading levels, or as a read-aloud for families with children of various ages. They are wholesome, well-written, and engaging stories. To read more detailed reviews of each book, please visit the Reading Tub website.
The Last Dragon
written by C. A. Rainfield
Illustrated by Charlie Hnatiuk
published by H-I-P Books, High Interest Publishing, 2009
Audience (Reading level): 8 to 12 (2.6 Flesch-Kincaid)
Reading Tub book talk
written by Stacy Nyikos
illustrated by Regan Johnson
published by Blooming Tree Press, 2008
Audience (Reading Level): 9 to 14 (6.4 Flesch-Kincaid)
Reading Tub book talk
image source: Dragon – Chinese Dragon Cliparts