dragons I have known

When I first started writing fantasy, I swore that I would never ever include something so cliched, so stale, so overdone, as a dragon.


Whether I wanted them or not, dragons crept or stormed into my fiction anyway.

The sleeping dragon whose awakening would restart an ancient war. The cultured dragon who likes books and foreign travel. The continent-sized space dragon whose skeleton is home to humans and humanoid species.

And these are all in some way influenced by the dragons I have known, and fall in one of the categories below:

Force of Nature/Actively Evil

The dragons of Western literature dragons are seen as forces of nature–like a destructive storm–or actively evil. These are the dragons that Beowulf and St. George battle. These are the dragons from the movie Reign of Fire. The ones that are intelligent as well as malevolent are the most compelling and frightening of all–from Smaug in The Hobbit to the transformed Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Loyal Companions

Two words: Pernese dragons.

Admit it, you were thinking about Pernese dragons too when you saw the “Loyal Companions” heading

These telepathic dragons are genetically engineered to bond with human riders and fight Thread. They are sentient, but they are also totally, irrevocably loyal to and protective of their riders. These dragons fulfill a powerful human fantasy to command the utter devotion of such fearsome beasts.

They’re also from my grown-up perspective, a little boring. (I wonder what would happen if a genetic mutant in that sort of world didn’t bond with a human, didn’t die from lack of such bond, and grew up wondering what made humans so special that dragons had to obey them?).

Cute and Cuddly

These abound in children’s books, from the little kitten-sized dragon in There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon to the three, darling troublemakers in Good Night, Good Knight.

See, dragons just want to be cuddled and petted. Hmm, also sounds like Pernese fire lizards.

Very cute story. And look at those adorable little dragonlings!

Just Like Us

They may have sharp teeth and be overfond of princesses and sparkly stuff, but they are like us. They talk, they give dinner parties, they form governments. They argue and form alliances. Some of them are inquisitive and question everything. Others would rather read poetry than fight. They are easy to identify with.

Who are your favorite dragons? Any dragon categories I might’ve missed?

5 favorite lesser known fairy tales

Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Beauty and the Beast. These popular fairy tales (along with a few more I haven’t mentioned) have been illustrated, retold, fractured, and adapted countless times, and they are still going strong. They’re only a small handful of the great number of fairy tales available to us, though. Today I want to highlight five of my favorite lesser-known fairy tales.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

via SurLaLune Fairy Tales

This is the most popular of the lesser-known fairy tales on this list. It’s enjoying a resurgence in YA fantasy fiction, with such offerings as Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George and Entwined by Heather Dixon.

I loved the imagery of this tale–the tattered shoes, the princesses in their ball finery, the magic staircase and the invisibility cloak,  the groves of silver, gold, and diamond leaves, the well-lit castle in the center of the lake. That, and I’m a sucker for the kind man of humble origins solving the mystery and winning the princess.

Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins

I didn’t discover this until a few years ago when I got the Lauren Mills’ picture book retelling out of the library for my children. I instantly adored the wild-haired feisty Tatterhood with her red cloak and her white goat and her big wooden spoon for whacking hobgoblins with. I loved her fierce bond of loyalty to her sister, her courage, her adventurous spirit. And when she does finally settle down to become more of a conventional fairy tale princess, it’s with a twinkle in her eye and on her own terms.

King Thrushbeard

I hesitate to add this one, though I loved it as a child. A haughty princess taunts and rejects all her noble suitors. After dismissing the last one, mockingly calling him “Thrushbeard”, her father loses patience with her and declares he will marry her to the next man to come to his gates. The weeping princess thus finds herself wed to a beggar, who insists she earn her keep. Long story short, the beggar is really King Thrushbeard and the princesses, humbled and kinder, takes her place as his queen at the end.

I like fish-out-of-water stories, and lesson-learned tales, but I don’t like the Taming of the Shrew method of a husband schooling his wayward wife. I include this tale–but with reservations. That, and because I think it would be fun to break some time!

Snow White and Rose Red

I  enjoyed the rural setting and loved the non-romantic relationships in this one–the love between mother and daughters, the sisterly bond between Snow White and Rose Red, and the friendship between the bear and the girls. I also found it highly amusing that the girls’ every encounter with the ill-natured dwarf led to the latter losing a piece of his beard as a result of their help!

Liang and the Magic Paintbrush

This is the version I read to my children, though I grew up with a different one, whose illustrations I still remember vividly. Liang, a poor Chinese boy, is gifted with a magic paintbrush that makes pictures come to life. When the greedy emperor discovers this, he hunts Liang down and Liang uses his wits to put an end to the man and escape with his paintbrush.

What are your favorite lesser-known fairy tales?

repost: fairytale picture books

This is Repost Week: the picture book edition. While I’m packing several boxes of my children’s books, enjoy reading about some of the fantastic fairy tale picture books out there!

More on fairy tales here and here.


Miss M’s absolutely favorite princess may be Snow White, but her absolutely favorite fairy tale book is Barbara McClintock’s Cinderella (a bargain for a dollar at a used store; little did I know how much she would love it). Filled with delicate illustrations and replete with details, this gentler Cinderella story ends with her family being sorry for how they treated her and her forgiving them all (and also finding suitable noblemen for her stepsisters to wed). Thanks to this book the phrase, “ran like a startled deer” entered Miss M’s vocabulary.

Jan Brett’s Beauty and the Beast is a feast for the eyes, featuring exotic animals as the Beast’s bespelled servants. Miss M and I have spent a long time poring over the pages; there is so much to discover in the pictures themselves. Luscious and courtly.

We recently discovered Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrated retellings of Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty. These are darker, featuring medieval costumes and architecture in a palette of earth colors. Be warned that the text of Snow White references cannibalism (the Queen eats what she believes are Snow White’s liver and heart) and death by unusual punishment (being forced to dance in red-hot shoes), both of which I smoothly edited out. The Sleeping Beauty also has one rather grim double-spread of illustrations depicting skeletons and corpses of young men pierced by thorns (I hurried past that one because it bothered me).  From an adult perspective, these illustrations feel truer to the original stories, evoking dark magics, wild forests and stone castles. The princesses also come across as more real than your usual sanctified versions; Snow White is childlike in her fear, innocence and exuberance and Briar Rose is downright mischievous and outgoing.

Miss M. also enjoyed Paul Zelinsky’s Rapunzel, which sets the story in sun-drenched Renaissance Italy. I love the architectural details of this one.

Moving on from traditional princesses (who are a tad too passive and victimized for my tastes), we have another one of Miss M. favorites: The Paper Bag Princess. After her castle is smashed and her princessy clothes burned by a dragon, Princess Elizabeth dons a paper bag and sets off after him to rescue her fiance, the proper Prince Ronald. The puffed-up-with-pride dragon is no match for the clever princess.

In Snow Princess by Susan Paradis, a young girl playing in the snow imagines she is a royal princess awaiting the return of her father, the king. Beautiful beautiful pictures of ice castles, a court of animals, and the girl’s princess alter ego watching for her father on a magnificent white horse and leading him home on a dragon. Just lovely.

Any other fairy tale picture books that you’ve enjoyed?

respost: a life of literary allusions

Welcome to Repost Week: the picture book edition. While my life currently resembles a scene from Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going To Move, I’m treating you to some oldies but goodies. I wrote this when oldest child was about four–he’s seven now–and sharing books with my children has only gotten better!


One of the exciting things about being a parent is introducing books to my little ones. They go from interacting with the physical books–chewing them, pulling them off shelves, stuffing them in various holes, crevices and nooks, turning pages and pointing to pictures–to interacting with the story itself. This is the fun stage my oldest son is at; he enacts the stories (though the enthusiastic chopping down of Truffula trees with an axe made out of Tinkertoys is not, perhaps the take-home message of The Lorax), talks about them and brings them into his real life.

The other day, while we were out on a family walk, the Firstborn started to make grimacing faces. “Look, Mommy! I smile at the good and frown at the bad*!” I cracked up and after that we were off and running, with the literary allusions flying fast and thick between us, calling the full moon a bowl of milk** and me teasing him that I would turn into a pumpkin at eight. (He insisted I would be a hen instead, then got upset when I made clucking noises, and turned me back into Mommy.)

I love how kids get into stories. I love that, after reading One Morning in Maine, the Firstborn took his sister to dig clams in our yard (good luck, kids!). I love that he’s memorized whole books; the other day he sidled up to me and told me that he’d be my best friend and give me five bucks if I let him drive the bus***. Oh, and he bet my mom would let him. I love how kids just dive into the material; playacting, drawing, building, asking questions, reinterpreting, weaving these stories into the fabric of their lives.

And I love how shared reading experiences bring us together as a family. That we can use these books as springboards for games, shared activities, crafts, silly inside jokes, serious conversations.

Here’s to many more years of sharing stories.

* Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

** Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes

*** Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

What are some of your favorite quotable books (picture books or otherwise)? Which quotes have become part of your family’s culture?