In ancient times, travellers claimed they saw dragons, strange snake-like creatures, living in remote corners of the world.
Dragons hold a prominent place both in world mythology and children’s literature. Slovenian author/illustrator Lila Prap takes readers on a journey from ancient Mesopotamia to Roman times to China and beyond as she explores the global history of these mysterious creatures in her latest picture book, Dragons?!
The book opens with a family of chickens who have gathered to listen to their grandmother read a book that claims “DRAGONS are the ancestors of chickens!”. The chickens appear on every spread making witty commentary as readers learn about the role of dragons in cultures past and present. “If [dragons] had a number of heads, they must have spent the whole day brushing their teeth,” the chickens joke. This narrative framework is unique and certainly differentiates this book from the countless other books for young people on dragon lore. The chickens mirror the child audience as they engage and ask questions of the text.
Prap is an established and well-received illustrator whose career has spanned well over two decades. She has been short-listed for several prestigious awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration and the Astrid Lindgren Award for Illustration. In 2002, she was awarded the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Certificate of Honour for Illustrations. Her highly-stylized artwork is bright, bold, and immediately recognizable.
Dragons?! is a book that can function in different ways, depending on the age and interest level of the reader. Younger audiences may be most interested in the images and the short headings across each spread. Older readers will be curious about what the chickens are saying. Independent readers will likely spend more time pouring over the condensed legends on each page. This adaptability may be the book’s greatest strength.
Dragons?! is a work in translation, and, at times, the translation is obvious to the point of detraction. The language feels forced and jokes fall flat. Additionally, Prap assumes her readers are coming to the book with some knowledge of history and mythology and, in doing so, runs the risk of confusion. The specifics of European lore will likely be unknown to North American children. Condensing information into one or two short paragraphs is always a challenge in nonfiction picture books.
From My Father’s Dragon to Cressida Cowell’s “How to Train Your Dragon” series, dragons abound in literature for young people. While not adding anything groundbreaking to the picture book cannon, Dragons?! will appeal to young readers interested in reading more about these fearsome beasts.
Devon Arthur is a children’s book enthusiast living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Young People’s Texts and Cultures from the University of Winnipeg.