The Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit
Edith Nesbit writes the most clever and charming children’s stories. I love them. The Book of Dragons is a collection of eight delightful tales about dragons:
“The Book of Beasts” — Lionel, a young boy, is summoned to be the king after his great-great-great-something-grandfather dies. In the library of his new castle, he discovers the Book of Beasts and opens it. Out flies a red dragon who eats a soccer team and an orphanage. King Lionel must outwit the dragon with some help from a hippogriff and a manticore. This story is pretty funny and it, as well as the narrator’s voice in the audio edition I listened to, reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman.
“Uncle James, or the Purple Stranger” — This story is so imaginative. It’s about a land in which, because of how the world was formed, all the animals are the wrong sizes. There’s some English History lessons that are hilarious. (Edith Nesbit makes regular ironic comments on English history, personalities, and politics, which makes her stories appealing for adults, too.) The voice in this story is absolutely charming.
“The Deliverers of Their Country” — When a plague of dragons breaks out, a couple of children go to St. George’s Church to find George and ask him to slay the dragons. When they can’t find him, they have to do the job themselves. Funny: One breed of dragons in this story will eat only prime ministers.
“The Ice Dragon, or Do As You Are Told” — Two children see the Northern Lights and set off to find the North Pole. They discover a dragon under the ice as well as some sealskin dwarves. This was my least favorite of the stories.
“The Island of the Nine Whirlpools” — The king is upset because the queen gave him a daughter instead of a son, so he locks the little princess in a tower and hopes a clever man will come along and slay a dragon for her. This story is about the power of love and the power of algebra.
“The Dragon Tamers” — A poor blacksmith who has a wife and baby discovers an iron dragon living in the basement. The dragon asks the blacksmith to do some repair work on the rivets which connect his wings to his body. The blacksmith knows he needs to outwit the dragon before the dragon breaks free. This was one of my favorites.
“The Fiery Dragon, or the Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold” — A bad prince has stolen the kingdom of his cousin, a young princess with a heart of gold. When the princess notices a fiery dragon lurking in the woods, she fears for the children of the kingdom. Then her cousin goes out to hunt the dragon with his pack of hippopotamuses. When he gets some advice from a pig keeper, his plans backfire.
“Kind Little Edmund, or the Caves and the Cockatrice” — A kind and curious boy named Edmund helps a cockatrice who repays him by telling him wonderful stories and then by helping him save his town from a dragon. This was another favorite.
Each of Nesbit’s dragon stories is entertaining and can be enjoyed by all ages. They contain heroic kids who are smart, brave, and kind. Some of the tales amusingly explain natural phenomena like Britain’s weather, whirlpools, the domestication of cats, and the Aurora Borealis. If you want your kids to develop strong imaginations and a delightful sense of irony, have them read Edith Nesbit.
One small complaint: Edith Nesbit’s stories are over 100 years old, so they’re old-fashioned and quaint. These dragon stories feel particularly upper-crust British, there is little diversity, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Nesbit thought that blonde hair, blue eyes, and milk-white skin are fundamentals of the ideal human form. This feeling is icky, but typical for 19th century British literature.
I listened to Lark Audiobook’s version of The Book of Dragons which was released in May 2017. Nicki White and Matt Stewart did the narration and I thought they were a perfect fit. This version is 4.25 hours long. It does not, by the way, contain the story called “The Last of the Dragons” which some other editions have.
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