(Originally published in Bay Windows, February 22, 2007.)
One of the ways I judge a children’s book is by how much it captures my son’s imagination. After we read The Different Dragon, he made me run around the house with a blanket over my head, flapping it like dragon’s wings, while he pretended to be the boy in the story. We had a winner.
The book is a story about storytelling. The protagonist, Noah, is a little boy who weaves a bedtime tale of magic and dragons with his mother, Go-Ma. Go-Ma happens to be one of his two mothers, but that’s not the point of the story—or perhaps the point is that it’s not the point. Part of the beauty of the book is that it’s not “about” being an LGBT family per se, except to the extent that being an LGBT family means playing with blocks, putting on pajamas, and telling bedtime stories. As the author, Jennifer Bryan, elaborated for me: “I was tired of reading GLBT books that ‘explained’ or ‘defended’ our type of family. Those books have served an important purpose, but I wanted to read a book to my kids that is FUN and MAGICAL, a great story, with beautiful illustrations—and the fact that the protagonist has two moms is incidental to the tale.”
Noah and Go-Ma create a story about a dragon who doesn’t want to be fierce anymore, and a little boy who tells him “There are lots of different ways to be a dragon. . . . You can be however you want.” It echoes the 1936 classic The Story of Ferdinand, about a bull who would rather sniff flowers than fight. This alone is a worthy message, touching on difference and kindness with a light hand, even if it weren’t wrapped in the larger narrative of storytelling and placed in a same-sex household.
For children, however, the best part of the book may be the pure adventure of it, as Noah sails off in search of dragons, his companion cat by his side. It’s a story that should appeal to those from about age three to ten. There’s only a brief scary moment when the dragon first appears, breathing fire, but we quickly find out he’s a kind-hearted soul.
The strength of the book is how Bryan perfectly captures the back and forth of storytelling with a young child, with the adult incorporating the child’s suggestions into the narrative. My three-year-old is at the age when this is exactly how we tell stories together. I felt an immediate resonance as we read The Different Dragon, and sensed that he did, too.
There are a few rough patches of prose, such as the paragraph listing the people and pets in Noah’s family. Bryan directs this bluntly at the reader (“Noah was a boy who had two mothers . . .”), but might have integrated it better into the surrounding dialogue by framing it as Noah’s own reflection on his family (“Noah thought about his two mothers. . . .”) Elsewhere, Bryan describes a nighttime “firefly and cricket convention,” something to which children may not relate. A “firefly and cricket party” might have worked better, even at the loss of alliteration.
These are quibbles, however. The banter between Go-Ma and Noah and between Noah and the dragon is engaging and wise. There is just enough description to set a scene without slowing down the pace of the tale. Noah sails in a “royal blue and snappy orange boat.” The dragon has “fire in his nostrils and a long, spittley red tongue and lots of chomping teeth.”
The colorful mixed-media illustrations by Danamarie Hosler fill the pages and further immerse the reader in the tale. They convey both whimsy and a certain realistic detail, such as the numerous items scattered about Noah’s room. My son likes to linger on a page and point out all the small background objects.
All families with young children should read this book for its engaging, magical tale. The fact that it celebrates difference—of both the dragon and Noah’s family—is an added bonus. As Bryan herself said, “I hope families of all kinds will add this book to their collections, and I really hope it makes it into elementary school classrooms, not just for the natural and normalizing reflection of a gay family but because Noah’s message to the dragon is a good one for all of us who feel bound and hampered by others’ expectations.”
I fear, however, that her hope for school inclusion will be hard to achieve. In the past two weeks alone, school districts in Massachusetts and New Jersey have come under fire for including same-sex families in their diversity curricula. The Different Dragon may manage to slip into school libraries, for it is less obviously a book about LGBT families than, say, Heather Has Two Mommies or Daddy, Papa and Me. I foresee, though, the same kind of outcry that surrounded And Tango Makes Three, the book about gay penguins, when children bring the book home to unsuspecting and close-minded parents.
That would be a great shame, for this is an admirable book by any measure, not just because it includes a lesbian family. Yes, we still need books that help children of LGBT parents understand their families’ difference and explain our families to others. The Different Dragon, however, offers us something more: a glimpse ahead to a time when that will no longer be necessary.