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Review of the Day: Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon

By Ursula Vernon
Dial (a member of Penguin Group)
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3363-3
Ages 7-11
On shelves now.

Blame Babymouse. Why not? Babymouse, for those of you unfamiliar with the series, is the hot pink infused graphic novel sensation that has boys and girls alike wrapped tightly up in the times and trials of a little mouse with messy whiskers and a weakness for a good cupcake. No one anticipated the massive success of the series, and since its creation there have been multiple attempts to topple it from its throne. Terms like "it’s the new Babymouse" have been many, but until now no comic booky-like creation has successfully come up with its own particular brand of humor and thick black-lined drawings. Until now! To be fair Dragonbreath, the first in a new series, is its own beast entirely. With a shape and size (and restrained color palette) similar to Babymouse, author/illustrator Ursula Vernon has come up with her own unique storytelling style. I dislike calling anything the "new" this and the "new" that, but if you want something to supplement the reading of your Babymouse fans who like funny urbane graphic fiction, seek thee no further, traveler. Here be dragons.

You would think that as a dragon Danny would have it easy at school. You would have it wrong. Sure, he’s the only dragon amongst a bunch of other reptiles, but can he breathe fire yet? Not hardly. So is it any wonder that he gets picked on by the local bullies all the time? At least he has his best friend Wendell, an iguana with a penchant for a smart retort. When Danny cooks up a plan to write a report on oceans by visiting his cousin Edward (a sea serpent) Wendell comes along and the two find themselves in deep water. Literally. Figuratively. Told with text with pictures for spice (ala Captain Underpants) consider this a reluctant reader pick, and a visual stimulant.

It’s important for the creator of any book to believe in the world they’ve conjured up. Artist Ursula Vernon has done just that. In this book she has clearly considered all the logistics down when it comes to creating a school for reptiles. The playground would be equipped with large rocks "for sitting and sunning oneself." The bully would, of course, be a Komodo dragon (with a salamander and a chameleon for his flunkies). Of course, in terms of scale, Vernon does tend to break out the creativity. Dragons, apparently, are comparable in size (at least when young) to salamanders and lizards. Komodo dragons, for that matter, are significantly larger (though not as big as they would be in real life). For about a page and a half your brain says "squee?" and tries to figure this out. Then you tell your brain to take it easy and enjoy the book, and it forgets all about scale and size from that point onward. And there has been some mention of the fact that the school sections don’t always drive the plot forward, but I would argue that each section of the book adds to the overall storyline.

The text is a nice mixing and melding of kid and adult humor. Vernon can write a sentence like, "This idea was met with the contempt it deserved," and not turn off young readers in the process. You will find this book infused with an exceptionally dry wit. There are plenty of phrases in this book that I’ve never seen grace the pages of children’s literature before. Wendell covered in sea cucumber spit-up utters a remorseful "I feel violated". I also tend to feel favorably towards any book that can work in good 10-point vocabulary words casually as part of the text. And it doesn’t get much better than sentences like, "It was the exact sound that a a young Komodo dragon might make when he had just been stabbed in the hand with a plastic fork by a plate of recalcitrant potato salad." My guess as to the number of children’s books tossing about the term "recalcitrant"? Low. Very low.

  Some people will tell you that kids these days refuse to read anything purely black and white. Others will point out the ever-present popularity of comic strips and scoff. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Children, for all that we talk down to them, can be discerning consumers. If a graphic novel is drawn in such a way that color would aid in the reading of it, kids pick up on that. Dragonbreath, as it happens, is limited to a color palette of one. Green. Lots o’ pretty green. You get a touch of yellow and blue on the cover, but don’t let them fool you. Green’s as good as it gets. Which, considering that this is a seaside tale that takes a turn for ocean depths, is fine. I was kind of hoping for a second color to appear during the big exciting climax, but no go. Perhaps future episodes will introduce new colors for the upcoming adventures in the series.

I considered for a moment the possibility that Dragonbreath would read aloud well to kids. After all, there’s more text than anything else. Still, the full-page illustrated spreads do not always align perfectly with where the text is at any given time. Also, these pictures would be difficult to see in a classroom setting. Nope. Dragonbreath is clearly the one-on-one type. Fortunately it’s also equally funny to adults and kids which will make bedtime reading fun for everyone. Don’t let them pawn this off on you as a lesser Babymouse then. Dragonbreath is its own beast entirely, and once a kid has read it they’ll be mightily inclined to read a couple more. Particularly if future volumes really do involve ninja frogs.

On shelves now.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly



  • An interview with her editor Kate Harrison.

Book Trailer:
From the publisher

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. She also writes an excellent webcomic, Digger. (diggercomic dot com)


  1. […] If you see your student bring one of our Dragonbreath books home, consider taking the opportunity to enjoy the graphic novel together. School Library Journal calls Dragonbreath “a nice mixing and melding of kid and adult humor.” The review praises Vernon’s dry wit, as well as her ability to introduce students to adult vocabulary without being intimidating. “And it doesn’t get much better than sentences like, ‘It was the exact sound that a a young Komodo dragon might make when he had just been stabbed in the hand with a plastic fork by a plate of recalcitrant potato salad.‘ My guess as to the number of children’s books tossing about the term ‘recalcitrant‘? Low. Very low.” To read more of School Library Journal’s review of Dragonbreath, click here. […]