September 02, 2010


Thomas and the Dragon Queen. By Shutta Crum. Illustrated by Lee Wildish. Knopf. $15.99.

Dragon Keepers #3: The Dragon in the Library. By Kate Klimo. Random House. $15.99.

Mamba Point. By Kurtis Scaletta. Knopf. $16.99.

     Dragons are reptiles, aren’t they? Fire-breathing and flying aside, they do have all those scales, and generally seem to have a reptilian nature, at least in legend – all that lying about in caves, dozing most of the time except when needing to feed, but being implacable hunters when hungry, and so on. In books for preteens, though, what dragons mostly have is character. The one in Thomas and the Dragon Queen also has a name – Queen Bridgoltha – and a dozen little dragonlets, who are just adorable and tremendously playful when Thomas (smallest squire in the kingdom, and later smallest knight) comes upon them as he attempts to rescue the abducted Princess Eleanor, who is actually doing just fine, thank you very much. This book is a good-humored sendup of fairy tales and fantasy adventures, with amusing writing by Shutta Crum and illustrations by Lee Wildish that sometimes tug at the heartstrings (as when poor Thomas loses, one after another, all the important things with which he has gone a-questing) but more often tickle the funnybone (as when Thomas tickles two of the baby dragons and one of them climbs onto him). One of the most enjoyable things about the book is the way Crum unravels typical elements of adventure tales. Thomas has a sword, which comes complete with an elaborate legend and a hilt made from the tooth of some unknown beast – but soon after Thomas is given it, the sword is broken and lost. He has no warhorse but “a donkey named Bartholomew,” and does not even have Bartholomew for long, because he lends him to someone. He has no armor, not even a metal shirt or padded vest: “I had a leather jerkin, but it was stolen from me by dolphins.” The only thing Thomas has by the time he reaches the Dragon Queen’s lair is a toy given to him by his sister, Isabel – and of course his own good, honest nature, which proves to be just what he needs to succeed, in an appropriate way, in his quest. Thomas and the Dragon Queen is a little simplistic and a touch obvious, and will be a bit too easy for many readers toward the upper end of the target age range of 7-10. But it is a charming tale nevertheless, and its unfailing good humor makes the book a light and frothy confection.

     The Dragon Keepers series, for ages 8-12, is light and amusing as well. The Dragon in the Library is the third book of Kate Klimo’s sequence, after The Dragon in the Sock Drawer and The Dragon in the Driveway. The first book was a genuine delight; the second and third are more like variations on a theme. Cousins Jesse and Daisy are the Dragon Keepers, and Emmy is their quickly growing dragon. In the first novel, Jesse and Daisy discovered a huge red book. In The Dragon in the Library, the cousins learn the secrets of the book and also find out why Emmy has been in a really bad mood lately, complaining about missing something but not knowing what it might be. St. George, the famous dragon slayer of English myth, is the bad guy in these books – one of the neat ideas introduced in the first volume – and his girlfriend, Sadie Huffington, is no better: in the third volume, she kidnaps Professor Andersson (a helpful dragon expert whom Jesse and Daisy consult from time to time) as part of a plot to capture Emmy. The “shelf elves” in a magic library are an especially clever element of the third book: “They slid from shelf to shelf on a webwork of fine silken filaments, like mountaineers rappelling down a rock face.” The elves’ Chief Steward speaks partly in parenthetical statements, as when Jesse and Daisy explain that they are looking for a book: “‘A book, you say? How novel! (Toss in a little shelf elf humor now and then, I always say, don’t I? I do!)’” Elves and books and a dragon who tells the real story of St. George are all part of the plot here, and the plan to rescue the professor turns out to rely on dog biscuits that are to be used only in dire circumstances (which emerge soon enough). What Emmy is missing turns up at last, and involves both a book and a dragon, and there is a closing scene that introduces bibliotechnicians and bibliotherapists and will surely whet fans’ appetites for another Dragon Keepers entry.

     There is reptilian magic in Mamba Point, too, but this book for ages 9-13 is set in the real world, not a fantasy one, and is based on Kurtis Scaletta’s own experience of living in Monrovia, Liberia, in the early 1980s. The mystery here is not about human connections to dragons but about a boy’s possible connection to one of Africa’s deadliest snakes, the black mamba. Twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle thinks he may be one of the kasengs, people with a strong and mysterious relationship with specific animals. Linus, who has come to Africa with his family because his father has gotten a job at the U.S. embassy in Monrovia, first sees a black mamba when getting off the plane – and keeps seeing them, despite assurances that the deadly snakes are rare. At first frightened and unsure of himself and his new surroundings, Linus gradually comes to accept himself as a kaseng, and even keeps a black mamba in his laundry hamper (about as sensible an idea as keeping a dragon in the library). “I would have to tell…about the snake,” Linus realizes. “It would probably get out and everyone would think I was a freak. I wouldn’t have a single friend the entire time I lived in Africa. I had to do it, though. If I knew anything about facing fears, it was that waiting made it harder.” The snake becomes the center of considerable drama and near-death experiences both on the human side and for the snake itself. But eventually the black mamba – now clearly a symbol of Africa and of Linus’ own need to grow up and assert his individuality – survives and is taken to its own happy ending, while Linus grows up and learns much about himself and about the country where he has lived temporarily. The exotic settings and reptilian focus distinguish what is essentially a straightforward coming-of-age story. There may be no dragons in Mamba Point, but there is magic of a different kind.

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