February 29, 2012

The Knight and the Dragon

The Knight and the Dragon
By Tomie dePaola; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Putnam 32pp.
978-0399207075 Hardcover $15.95

"Once upon a time, there was a knight in a castle who had never fought a knight. And in a cave no too far away was a dragon who had never fought a knight."

So begins The Knight and the Dragon, a tale of opposition that ends in barbecue, but not in the way you might think. In his knight and dragon, Tomi dePaola (winner of the Caldecott Honor Medal, the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award) gives us a pair of heroes trying to live up to their societally assigned roles - roles that don't necessarily fit. The knight, far from bold and overtly heroic, finds himself in the castle library reading books like "How To Fight Dragons" while in his cave, the dragon reads up on "How To Fight Knights" and "The Art of Tail Swishing." With his characteristic style, dePaola illustrates both knight and dragon as sweetly earnest, (it takes the dragon six wordless panels to work himself up to looking fierce), as they both prepare for a battle neither particularly seems to crave. Finally, they set a time for the battle by sending each other cordial invitations addressed to and from "Sir Knight" and "B. Dragon Esq.", but as might be predicted, the day of the fight finds neither particularly successful. Then the castle librarian rides by in her book cart (I loved the castle librarian), and presents our heroes with a solution in the form of what might be one of the most insightful pieces of reader's advisory ever to appear in print. They then read "The Outdoor Cook Book" and "How To Build A Bar-B-Q" together, whereupon they set aside their enmity and open a hamburger stand.

This nearly wordless picture book relies on its illustrations to tell the tale, prompted along by just enough text to keep the story rolling. It's a formula that words well, particularly as the reader is well aware of what typically happens in stories such as this (knight and dragon battle, knight triumphs), while being just as well aware that this is not a typical knight and dragon. The scarcity of the text allows dePaola's twist on the tale to unfold with gentle humor, illustrating to young readers that you can be successful without conforming to other people's ideas about what you should be - important encouragement for kids just beginning to assert themselves as individuals in the world.

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