Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Reading: How to Train Your Dragon

Courtesy of npr.org 
Published in 2003, How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell is not the type of book I would ordinarily select from the shelf to read for myself or to my students.  However, this book was recommended to me, and I thought, "Why not?"  Besides, it's a book about dragons, and I have a class full of dragon-chasing third grade boys.  After reading the book, it wasn't a children's book that I particularly delighted in, but with a long airplane flight and a notebook in hand, I was able to successfully finish this novel.  Still, it is a book that young readers will probably enjoy for its silly character names and action.

How to Train Your Dragon follows the young Vikings of the Hairy Hooligan tribe.  Young Hiccup is appointed the leader of his young team since his father is the chief of the tribe, but he is constantly taunted by his fellow Viking boys, particularly Snotlout.  Snotlout bullies Hiccup throughout the novel and calls him names such as "Hiccup the Useless."  Hiccup does not look tough like the other boys, nor does he engage in barbaric games.  Following his appointment, he leads the young team to a cavern filled with sleeping baby dragons that they plan to steal and train in order to be initiated into the tribe.  If the boys fail to train a dragon and disprove their mastery, they will be exiled faraway, perhaps to an island filled with cannibals!  (I almost think this is a better option anyway than life with the Hairy Hooligans, as they are loud, crude, and rude to boot.)  While in the process of stealing baby dragons, Hiccup's best friend, Fishlegs, awakens a sleeping pile of dragons and causes the boys to flee the cavern by jumping into the freezing ocean.  On the way out, Hiccup grabs a sleeping dragon that he felt was meant to be his.  Later, the other boys tease him for the small size of his dragon, as well as his dragon's toothlessness. But Hiccup is determined to train his dragon without following the Hooligan's standard training protocol:  YELL!

As I mentioned above, young readers will enjoy this book for the silly names (Fireworm, Horrorcow, Fishlegs, and Gobber to name a few) and for the action that unfolds as the tribe of boys must banish two super-sized dragons from the island in order to save the lives of the tribe members.  I feel that my students who enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid will also enjoy this novel.

However, as a teacher, I would not read this book aloud to my class due to the insulting words that are exchanged between the characters with no resolution.  I realize that bullying is present in many books that I have blogged about and often not resolved, but I feel that the words exchanged here (such as "fatso") hit closer to home for my students, as they are words that they might hear on the playground.  Further, the characters themselves did not really evolve much, either.  While Hiccup's reputation changes from "useless" to "useful," he himself does not really change, and the ultimate bully in the story does not transform or make amends for his heartless words and actions.  In fact, at the end of the book, the author writes that Snotlout would prefer a "dead Hiccup" over a live one.  There are also many strings of dialogue that include phrases such as, "I will kill you," which I don't feel comfortable reading about or sharing with my students - even if the words are spoken by dragons.

I also was bothered by the illustrations in the book.  They were nearly scribbled and rather frightening, I thought, revealing big bellies (one of the characters is named Baggybums Beerbelly, after all) and actually added to my displeasure with the book. When my students turn in work that illustrates a lack of effort, I ask them to go back and add more details; this is the case for How to Train Your Dragon.  I can see that perhaps the illustrator wanted children to relate to her drawings, but I still feel that a lack of effort went into creating them. 

Needless to say, I was disappointed in this read.  I may include it in my classroom library for my eager dragon trainers, as there are several books in the series they can scout out if they enjoy it.  Though this was book recommended to me and I simply didn't like it, that doesn't mean you won't!  If you're interested, check it out at your local library or visit the official Dragon Training website! 

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