One of my friends saw the posting about a Positive Canon of Children’s Books and said she’d love to have ideas for reading to her son, who just latched on to the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. So this first one is for her – with a series that is great for just-about readers or early readers.
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett (not sure which is the mother, which the daughter) was published in 1948, making it 60 years old this year. It was followed in 1950 by Elmer and the Dragon, and then in 1951 by The Dragons of Blueland.
I loved these stories when I was a little girl, and both my children loved them, as have other children to whom I’ve given them or read them.
To begin with, these books are funny. Elmer Elevator (my father) sets out on an adventure to free a baby dragon that has been captured by the animals of Wild Island. On the advice of the cat who told him about the dragon’s plight, he packs “chewing gum, two dozen lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, six magnifying glasses, a very sharp jackknife, a comb and hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, …” Every one of these items plays an important role as he outwits the turtles, boars, tigers, rhinoceros, lion and lioness, gorilla, and crocodiles that stand in his way.
In Elmer and the Dragon, Elmer flies to his home in Nevergreen City on the dragon’s back, having an adventure along the way on an island where he and the dragon help the king, queen, and court of canaries deal with their secret about an unendurable curiosity about buried treasure. What’s in the treasure, in addition to the silver harmonica on which Elmer plays The Bear went over the Mountain? I think this book was the first time I ever heard about skunk cabbage, which turns out to be an important part of a baby dragon’s diet.
In The Dragons of Blueland , the dragon comes to find Elmer again, and flies with him over the coast of Popsicornia back to Blueland to rescue the dragon’s family from hunters who are trying to capture them for zoos. Elmer to the dragon, “Tell me more about your family. Do you all look alike?” Dragon responding, “Oh no. We’ve all got gold-colored wings and red feet and horns, but my father is blue, and my mother is yellow. All my six sisters are green, ranging from yellow-green to blue-green. We boys are all both blue and yellow. I have wide stripes, but two brothers have narrow stripes, one with the stripes going the other way. One has yellow polka dots on blue …” You can imagine the illustrations.
Besides being just plain fun for child and adult, Elmer is a paragon of bravery, persistence, creativity, and social intelligence. In all 3 books, major conflicts are resolved with no bloodshed. In the first book, every animal who gets in Elmer’s way ends up with something it needs taken care of. The canaries have their curiosity assuaged. Even the hunters are chased away with horns and ventriloquism. It’s a great example of win-win solutions that come from interest in others and ingenuity.