Monday, July 2, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon

Title:  How to Train Your Dragon (#1 in a series of 9)

Author:  Cressida Crowell

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
             Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  8 years old and up

If you're finding it hard to engage your kids in reading you may find Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon a helpful prescription.  While I can't vouch for the entire series yet, we just completed reading the first book out loud with good results.

Being a book about barbarian Vikings, there will be the expected lack of manners and violent lifestyle to deal with.  The reason we can tolerate this in this particular book is that the main character, Hiccup, triumphs with brain over brawn.  By writing and illustrating a caricature of Viking lifestyle, Cowell and Hiccup automatically make opposing behaviors more attractive.  For example, by making dragons selfish and undependable, readers are more likely to cheer for Hiccup's thoughtful, responsible personality.

This book has a lot to say about bullying and boorish behavior.  Many kids will relate to Hiccup as the triumphant underdog.  Cowell writes for an intelligent reader as well;  despite fun, clever illustrations this is not an "easy" read.  It is 200 pages long with sentences and paragraphs that have a lot of structure and challenging vocabulary.

Yes, it has a few tasteless parts (a character named "Snotlout," an ugliest baby contest, exploding dragon innards) and a few words we don't prefer ("shut up," "stupid," "No poo-ing inside the house, please"), but these are mostly over-ridden with good writing and good themes.  (When reading aloud I find it pretty easy to make small edits and quick substitutions if I find the language derailing.)  I especially appreciated Hiccup's revelation that it's better to use creative motivation and discipline in raising a dragon than to simply yell all the time like the other vikings.  My girls and I actually discussed what it would be like to live in a family that yelled all the time instead of making polite requests and obeying promptly.

One of their favorite things in the book is a timid, small, brown and white, mild-mannered dragon owned by Hiccup's equally timid friend Fishlegs.  In an effort to encourage fierceness, Fishlegs names her Horrorcow.  My daughters caught the irony immediately and we enjoyed the inside joke together.  Just another benefit to reading as a family.  We read this book as our annual summer "book club."  We look for one book with a quality movie and make a party out of movie night for our kids and a few of their friends.  It's been a  great summer activity for us for a few years.

Time for a true confession:  the book's plot is actually a bit slow and one-dimensional so I prefer the movie.  I felt the movie made a number of strategic improvements on the storyline.  First, the screenwriters created a more attractive dragon/boy relationship between Toothless and Hiccup.  Second, they added a strong, independent girl Viking into the competition who eventually warms to Hiccup.  Third, they expanded the theme of the underdog by including handicapped characters who were entirely capable and accepted.  Adding in top-notch animation and an epic feel to setting and plot resulted in a great film for 8 year olds and their parents--something hard to do.  There are several fire-y battle scenes, so it may be unsettling for younger kids, but overall I would give the movie an "A."

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