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my father's dragon

8 january 2023

My Father's Dragon is a minor classic of American children's literature, viable enough in the 2020s to have inspired a new animated film. But one of the most impressive things about this 1948 chapter book, as I read it for the first time this winter, was to realize that its author, Ruth Stiles Gannett, is still alive at the age of 99. She made her mark on children's literature three-quarters of a century ago, and she might be watching her story on Netflix as I write.

My Father's Dragon starts with an enchanted cat. I imagine, on the basis of little evidence, that enchanted cats in children's stories far outnumber enchanted dogs. Cat and boy hero soon become allies, pitted against the adult world. The boy hero, Elmer Elevator (presented by the narrator as "my father"), longs to be able to fly. A plane is too expensive, so the cat suggests a dragon, and knows where to find one: Wild Island.

The catch is that the dragon must be freed. The wild animals of Wild Island keep the poor thing tied up so that he can serve as a living air ferry across the river that divides their domain. "The animals there are very lazy," the cat explains (15). If Elmer goes to the island and frees the dragon, they will be able to fly around together. And they apparently do, in a couple of sequels which my university library does not hold.

Elmer finds his way to Wild Island by way of Tangerina, and then his challenges commence. Each of the animals tries to waylay him in turn, but Elmer has a solution to each obstacle. These involve such things as toothbrushes and lollipops, and it would be pointless as well as spoilerish to recount them. A good time is had by all, and you probably have guessed that Elmer is eventually united with the dragon, because that is after all in the title of the book.

My Father's Dragon comes complete with vivid stylized illustrations by another Ruth Gannett, the author's stepmother. It is a book about confronting violence with ingenuity, good will, and pre-emptive gifts. And though Elmer has little trouble pacifying the wild animals in the main plot, violence does lurk near the book's surface. Elmer's mother "whipped my father and threw the cat out the door" (11); and in the backstory to the island adventure, the cat tells Elmer that the animals make the dragon "carry loads that are much too heavy, and if he complains, they twist his wings and beat him" (18). It's a fun-filled world, but it hovers above a world full of punishment.

Gannett, Ruth Stiles. My Father's Dragon. Illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. New York: Random House, 1948. PZ 10.3 .G15My