March 16, 2023


100 Mighty Dragons All Named Broccoli. By David LaRochelle. Illustrations by Lian Cho. Dial. $19.99.

     You have never seen a counting book quite like this, because there has never been a counting book quite like thus. Forget all that one-to-10 stuff and then 10-back-to-one. Forget those neat little additions and subtractions that kids can easily learn and adults can leave kids alone on their own to enjoy. Oh no, parents: get ready to give your mathematical abilities a bit of a workout with 100 Mighty Dragons All Named Broccoli. And get your laughter-producing muscles ready, too, because wow, are you going to need them.

     David LaRochelle has crafted a book so clever, so utterly silly and absurd, so delightful and so engaging – and has been so well abetted by illustrator Lian Cho – that kids and adults alike need to set aside plenty of time to read and reread and delight in the whole thing, far beyond any reasonable expectation for a work that runs a mere 36 pages. Scratch that “mere,” though, since there is nothing “mere” about what LaRochelle and Cho have produced. The book’s title gets everything started: why in heaven’s name are all the dragons named Broccoli? This is never explained – but it makes for an eventual twist ending that readers will not see coming and that gives Cho an opportunity to display amazing illustrative virtuosity.

     And what about that nice even number, 100? Well, it’s a big number for the young people at whom the book is targeted – but wait, there’s more! The very first thing that happens is a fraction, as half the dragons get blown away from their home “high on a mountain near a deep dark cave.” Well, no worries: LaRochelle helpfully explains that if half the 100 disappear, there are 50 left. Still a nice even number, right? But not for long! A little later, when only 40 Broccoli dragons remain, two form a heavy metal band in New York City, so now there are 38. Wait…38? What’s an out-of-nowhere number like that doing in a book for young kids? The same thing as 34, which is how many dragons are left after one becomes a unicorn, one a werewolf, one a zombie, and one “a tiny pink poodle.” And then we march on to the number 22, and then the dragons wearing sunglasses “flew to France,” and LaRochelle does not even say how many of those there are – just that there are 13 left after the Parisian departure. You figure it out.

     All this gets increasingly confusing and almost unbearably delightful. LaRochelle even plays tricks on readers, for instance by saying that “all the dragons wearing ballerina tutus flew to Sweden” and having it turn out, on the next page, that there were no dragons wearing ballerina tutus. So now we have the number zero lurking in the book. And then we have addition and subtraction mixed and remixed, as when “5 dragons took a rocket to the moon” while “2 of the dragons from West Virginia returned.”

     This goes on and on and on, with far more intricacy and complexity than LaRochelle has any right to pack into a picture book. The numbers actually become hard to follow (ok, not that hard, but hard by the standards of kids’ books). But they all make sense at the very, very end of the book, when the total number of dragons has been reduced to zero but then magically returns to 100 – actually 101 – and as for “all named Broccoli,” that is a resounding no way as the book finishes with an artistic flourish that is not only hilarious but also guaranteed to have kids and adults alike examining every one of the new crop of dragons very carefully to figure out the relationship between each one and its name (hint: in some cases there is no relationship).

     The whole “mighty dragons” notion is part of the joke here, since there is nothing mighty about any of the sunglass-wearing, non-tutu-wearing dragons; nothing fearsome at all about a dragon that turns into a tiny pink poodle (only to reappear later re-transformed into a dragon). The whole “all named Broccoli” thing is another element of amusement, in light of what happens at the book’s conclusion. Cho’s amazing ability to create so many different-looking, different-acting dragons is just as remarkable in its own way as LaRochelle’s outré sense of humor is in its way. Cho tosses in little “eyeball kicks” (a term originating in the old Mad magazine) that have nothing to do with the story but enhance it enormously – check out the three dragons in a row wearing roller skates near the end, or the five playing instruments whose musical notes float onto a different page and get into the illustrations of three non-musical dragons. Oh – and take a look at the uniforms of the three dragons that “boarded a bus to Wisconsin to play football for the Green Bay Packers.” (Look at the expressions on members of the opposing team while you’re at it.) The numbering, the naming, the picturing, the posing, the ups and downs and sideways machinations and cityscapes and bizarre activities (10 of the dragons “became professional surfers in Hawaii”), the colors and the cuteness and the number of details to be found both in the writing and in the visualization of 100 Mighty Dragons All Named Broccoli all combine into a picture book that really is like no other. For that matter, each of the dragons is like no other – even when their names are inexplicably identical. This is a book that celebrates imaginative thinking in just about every way possible, and even the most mathematically challenged grownup who is privileged to explore it with a child will pretty much have to give it a “1-2-3-HURRAY!” rating. Or, heck, maybe “22-13-34-HURRAY!”

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