Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

The Reluctant DragonWell, if it took us more than two months to finish The Railway Children, which was time well-spent, we breezed through The Reluctant Dragon in a matter of days. My kids were engaged enough in the story to comment on how it differed from the old Disney animated version, to study the pencil-sketch illustrations intently, and to request it every night until we were through. Actually, I think my children will sit and listen to just about anything - at least they've never asked to quit reading a book and move on to another one, so that's probably no indication of a book's quality.

This is a short little book without chapters, but a little too long to finish in one sitting. I had to find some logical breaks to keep bedtime at a reasonable hour, much to the dismay of my daughter who asked, "Do we have to end with 'Goodnight' again?" There is a simple cast of characters: the dragon, an unnamed Boy, and St. George take center-stage, with a sheperd and his wife (the Boy's parents) in supporting roles and a host of villagers as extras. The sonnet-spouting dragon is clearly no threat to society, but the villagers have convinced themselves that he is a terrible menace and scourge upon their fair land. Meanwhile, the boy has befriended the dragon and feels that he must intervene when Saint George appears to fight the deadly beast. After explaining the dragon's true retiring nature and the exaggerations of the villagers, the boy introduces the knight to the dragon and helps them arrange things in an altogether satisfactory manner.

There's some subtle humor in this tale, as it obviously plays upon the classic formula of knights conquering dragons and rescuing fair maidens. A Princess is sadly missing, however, since the Boy couldn't arrange everything as the dragon and Saint George expected him to, especially when his mother was waiting up for him. It's all right as dragon stories go, though not nearly so adventurous as My Father's Dragon, nor so witty and charming as Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows (linked to my reviews).

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word
Amy and her girls read The Reluctant Dragon earlier this year, and you can check out her Read Aloud Thursday review here. I'd like to see the illustrations in the volume that they read, and maybe we'll check it out again when we study Medieval history next year.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

The Railway Children (Nesbit)We were introduced to The Railway Children through our first grade writing curriculum in January, but a series of illnesses made it difficult for me to read aloud for several weeks and we've only just finished it now in early March. To be quite honest, it was probably a bit advanced for my children, ages 7 and almost 4, but even if they didn't understand some of the quaint vocabulary and customs of English country life at the turn of the 20th century, they followed the action pretty well and at least grasped the main storyline.

I myself was rather indifferent about the story at first - it was charming in an old-fashioned sort of way and the children were realistically portrayed, not too perfect as to be unbelievable, but not so naughty as to be bad examples - until I reached the last two chapters. There I found two passages that were so full of truth, and so foreign to most everything you will find in modern children's literature, that I can and will wholeheartedly recommend this novel to every family concerned to instill biblical values in their children. Let me show you why. 

After Peter had been tormenting his sisters with talk of blood and bones, making them queasy while their new friend was having his broken leg set, the Doctor had a little talk with him:
  "'You'll excuse my shoving my oar in, won't you? But I should like to say something to you.'
  'Now for a rowing,' thought Peter, who had been wondering how it was that he had escaped one.
  'Something scientific,' added the Doctor. . .
  'Well,' said the Doctor, 'you know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything - so they have to be hardy and brave. But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and gentle.'
  'Yes,' said Peter, wondering what was coming next.
  'Well, then, you see. Boys and girls are only little men and women. And we are much harder and hardier than they are' - (Peter liked the 'we'. Perhaps the Doctor had known he would.) - 'and much stronger, and things that hurt them don't hurt us. You know you mustn't hit a girl -'
  'I should think not, indeed,' muttered Peter, indignantly.
  'Not even if she's your own sister. That's because girls are so much softer and weaker than we are; they have to be, you know,' he added, 'because if they weren't, it wouldn't be nice for the babies. And that's why all the animals are so good to the mother animals. They never fight them, you know.'
  'I know,' said Peter, interested; 'two buck rabbits will fight all day if you let them, but they won't hurt a doe.'
  'No; and quite wild beasts - lions and elephants - they're immensely gentle with the female beasts. And we've got to be, too.'
  'I see,' said Peter.
  'And their hearts are soft, too,' the Doctor went on, 'and things that we shouldn't think anything of hurt them dreadfully. So that a man has to be very careful, not only of his fists, but of his words. They're awfully brave, you know,' he went on. 'Think of Bobbie waiting alone in the tunnel with that poor chap. It's an odd thing - the softer and more easily hurt a woman is the better she can screw herself up to do what has to be done. I've seen some brave women - your mother's one,' he ended abruptly.
  'Yes,' said Peter.
  'Well, that's all; excuse my mentioning it. But nobody knows everything without being told. And you see what I mean, don't you?'
  'Yes,' said Peter. 'I'm sorry. There!'"

I don't think I've ever heard true chivalry and femininity expressed so well for a child's understanding, encouraging boys to be gentlemen and elevating a girl's softness and weakness not as disadvantages, but as being the best for the babies, just as God intended! These values have been all but lost in the cultural wars of feminism, so it is refreshing to find them stated so clearly and beautifully.

The other passage that I love so well expresses God's providence in an equally beautiful way, and again in language that makes it easy for a child to understand.

  "'I say,' said Peter, musingly, 'wouldn't it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim's leg get well at once and be all right tomorrow, and Father come home soon and -'
  'Do you miss your father very much?' Mother asked, rather coldly, Peter thought.
  'Awfully,' said Peter, briefly. . .'You see,' Peter went on slowly, 'you see, it's not only him being Father, but now he's away there's no other man in the house but me - that's why I want Jim to stay so frightfully much. Wouldn't you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?'
  Peter's mother put her arm round him suddenly, and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said:
  'Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right - in the way that's best for us.'"

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the WordYes, I'm glad God is writing the book of our lives, and it is wonderful to find a story that communicates that truth and that will appeal to both boys and girls. We will be adding this to our own library soon, and I hope that both my daughter and son will pick it up to read on their own in a few more years.

Be sure to check out other Read Aloud Thursday posts at Hope is the Word.