Sometimes the obvious can also be the impossible. Take dragons, for example. Now say you’re a children’s librarian and a five-year-old approaches your desk and asks you for “a dragon story”. And not one of those two-bit cheapo dragon titles either. Nuh-uh. An honest-to-goodness straight up dragon tale with scales and fire and knights. The whole shebang. Now logically, what with dragons being this eternal bit of subject matter that’s just as popular with the kids now as they were 100 years ago, you should be able to instantly name ten great dragon picture books off the top of your head. Maybe you can too. Maybe you’re particularly gifted in that way. For my part, though, it’s hard to think of iconic dragon-related picture books. The Reluctant Dragon? A great story but a bit long for a tot. The Knight and the Dragon? Wonderful but wordless. The Paper Bag Princess? Awesome story but can we work that word “dragon” into the title somewhere? No, as ridiculous as this may sound it can be really hard to think up dragon stories. The idea that you might give one to the kid that contains not one but TEN cool looking dragons alongside a fun story, an acknowledgement that dragons mean different things in different cultures, plenty of action and plenty of humor . . . well basically just sign me up for some of that! In East Dragon, West Dragon, author Robyn Eversole and illustrator Scott Campbell give kids and adults alike something we have needed, whether we knew it or not, for a very long time.
Our two heroes in this story are East Dragon and West Dragon. East Dragon is our Felix and West Dragon our Oscar. While East Dragon lives a clean and tidy life with lots of dragon siblings and an emperor who truly appreciates dragon culture, West Dragon lives a single messy life dealing with a pesky local king and his equally pesky knights. The two dragons know of one another but each is sure that the other is the more fearsome of the two. One day, West Dragon can’t take the marauding knights a second longer (they interrupted his nap) so he gives them a map that will lead them to adventures. In their travels they run across the emperor who is extremely nice and offers them all his hospitality. Yet what do the pesky knights do in return? They take one look at the local dragon population and attack! Not thrilled at his rude guests, the emperor has the whole lot of them thrown into prison. West Dragon, hearing of their plight, resigns himself to saving them and along the way encounters (and is himself saved by) East Dragon. After much thought the two realize that neither dragon is any better than the other and the dragons, knights, and even the emperor himself all head over the sea to West Dragon’s place for food, fun, and maybe even a little karaoke.
The whole “overcoming differences” idea is so hard to do effectively in a children’s book without whapping the reader over the head with a big fat message stick. I mean, how do you teach without getting all preachy? How do you instruct without sounding out of touch? Eversole’s tactic is to go slow. The text of East Dragon, West Dragon is by no means punchy. It goes at its own pace and ends with a quiet happy conclusion that supports its storyline and central theme of not succumbing to prejudice. It’s not particularly exciting but it does its job. And anyway, insofar as I could tell the moral was just a framework on which to hang what essentially boils down to just a cool story. And I am totally fine with that.
Now the temptation is to read something deep and abiding into Eversole’s story beyond the obvious message. Anytime you’re dealing with a book that’s going into the old east vs. west conundrum you’re going to be facing that kind of a question. If we back up and look at Eversole’s title from a broader perspective you could make a case that this is a book about two cultures distrusting one another (Japan and America) until the Americans invade, the two sides realize how much they have in common, and everyone’s buddy buddy at the end. I say you could read it that way, but that’s certainly not how Ms. Eversole intended kids to take it. I mean, basically this is just an excuse to draw a whole mess of dragons. What kind of author could resist that? Not Mr. Campbell, that’s for sure.
Working primarily with watercolors, Campbell keeps his color palette in a muted range of greens, yellows, light blues, and soft purples. Lots of earth tones are going on here, and it works for his settings. I guess one question is how well Mr. Campbell portrays Japanese culture. Right off the bat I’d like to point out that Ms. Eversole never specifically names the “east” as Japan (and indeed it can’t be if that map on the endpapers is correct). Fortunately it looks as if Mr. Campbell has eschewed the temptation to then make his land a composite. We don’t have to worry that we’re dealing with a Tikki Tikki Tembo situation here (Japanese kimonos in a folktale that claims to be Chinese). Everything here looks, insofar as I can tell (and admittedly that’s not saying much), to be on the up and up. The east dragons have sushi, tea, ninjas & samurais, rock gardens, koi, and carefully tended flowers. In that summary alone I’m sure something will strike someone as being a bit off, but clearly Campbell isn’t just pulling together random images in the hope of presenting something “east”-ish. You get the definite sense that he did his homework.
The art is great but what I really enjoyed were the tiny people. On the one hand you have the emperor and his folks as they interact with their dragons. I loved poring over the images to find yet another tiny person taking a high dive off a dragon’s paw or performing a duet with a much larger partner. Then there are the knights and their king who infest the West Dragon’s home like particularly noxious pests. The spread of the West Dragon trying desperately to find something to distract them with takes place at the same time that they’re knocking over his potted plants, playing his Atari games (a Pong lookalike called “Castle”), bouncing on his bed, doing battle with his table lamp, and threatening his half eaten donut. On a first read through you’ll miss all the clever details Campbell has loaded into the cracks and crannies. I mean, how many folks are going to notice that the one-eyed monster surfing on the map endpapers looks suspiciously similar to the one-eyed skull sitting on the West Dragon’s side table? But after a while you pick up on things. An extra bonus is comparing the early scene of the dragons hanging out with the Emperor’s people with the final scene of the dragons hanging out with the King’s.
In the picture book world dragons are in danger of being the poor man’s dinosaurs. You’d think the whole breathing fire aspect would give them an edge and you would be wrong. For every dragon book there are fifty dinosaur titles to be had. Little wonder then that I’m so pleased to encounter East Dragon, West Dragon. It’s just the best possible combination of fun story, sterling text, relatable characters, and deeply amusing art. So slot this title firmly in the back of your mind. The next time a little kid asks you for dragons, you’ve got yourself an ace up your sleeve. Just pray they don’t ask you for a picture book on knights next.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Paul Galdone
- The Boy from the Dragon Palace by Margaret Read MacDonald
- The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie de Paola
Other Blog Reviews:
- A star from Kirkus
- With Campbell at Forces of Geek
- Take a peek at East Dragon, West Dragon‘s opening show at Gallery Nucleus.