Top 100 Children’s Novels #49: My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
A testament to the power of childhood imagination. – Hotspur Closser
I loved the map on the endpapers, and the careful way Elmer ran away, with his list of useful objects. – Anonymous
Five years ago I was tapped along with some other librarians to fill in at a local elementary school and read to a couple classes of kids while their librarian was gone. The book that I was asked to bring along was My Father’s Dragon, since that was what the kids were in the middle of and they were already deeply engrossed in the story. I, sad to say, at the time had never read the book. So I picked up a nice new copy and headed over there. I’ve rarely seen anything like it. Class after class of third graders sat there, jaws literally agape, as I read from a book that was a good 60 years old. Doubt you the power of a great story? Look no further. This title has a hold on kids that most folks would kill to achieve.
Bryna J. Fireside in Horn Book described the plot this way: “In the book, nine-year-old Elmer Elevator has learned from an old alley cat, whom he has rescued, that a baby dragon held captive on Wild Island needs to be rescued. The grateful old alley cat is sure that if Elmer rescues the dragon, the dragon will be only too happy to let Elmer fly on his back to anywhere he wishes. So the alley cat helps Elmer plan the rescue. Elmer makes certain to take a variety of common objects along — comb and brush, six magnifying glasses, chewing gum, some rubber bands, two dozen pink lollipops — and purloins his father’s knapsack to hold everything. The knapsack becomes a talisman, a cloak of protection for Elmer. And, of course, Elmer packs some food — twenty-five peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and six apples. When all his gear is safely in his father’s knapsack, Elmer stows away on the boat which will eventually take him to the dangerous Wild Island. There, Elmer encounters many animals — from a tiny mouse whose Spoonerisms will induce gales of laughter in young readers to two officious wild boars on the alert for an invasion. He also meets lions, tigers, and crocodiles who would love to eat him for lunch.” The story is told as one the narrator heard years ago, Elmer being the “father” mentioned in the title.
As Anita Silvey’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing tell us, new Vassar College graduate Ruth Stiles Gannett wrote the book in two rainy weeks. Her stepmother was (and here’s where it gets confusing) Ruth Chrisman Gannett, “who had previously illustrated a Caldecott Honor Book and a Newbery Medal winner.” That Newbery winner was Miss Hickory, for the record. She created illustrations for the book and Ruth Stiles Gannett’s future husband Peter Kahn helped create the maps of Tangerian and Wild Island. Gannett the younger wrote two sequels to the book then never wrote any children’s books again. Remarkable.
The book stands up over the years. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, Nick Clark (director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art) says of the book, “The illustrations are absolutely delicious and really take the text into another dimension, graphically extending it. Books are so important in conveying messages to children. We may not fully appreciate the impact of a book until we are older, but there are things that we learn from our reading. From My Father’s Dragon I learned that you have to use your noodle – and that the underdog can triumph in the end.”
This was said another way in 1995 when Bryna J. Fireside wrote in the Jan/Feb edition of Horn Book, “The power of My Father’s Dragon lies in the author’s assurances that while the adults in our lives can set things right some of the time, children will also become strong and clever enough to take care of themselves, and, when the time comes, will rescue their own children. In fact, one day, the child will become as powerful as the father.”
It won a Newbery Honor in 1949, beaten by King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry. I guess this post is a Newbery Honor kind of post today, isn’t it?
- You may read the book here, if you would like to download it.
- I experienced my own personal connection to this book last year when the author walked into my library. Please note the date of the book’s publication. My post on the moment is here.
The Saturday Review of Literature said, “This is without a doubt the funniest book that we have seen in a month of Sundays.”
The New York Herald Tribune called it, “A true work of art.” Later it named it the best children’s book of the year.
Not much in the way of different covers of the years, I must say. Just some tweaking here and there.
There was a Japanese version of the book made into a movie called Elmer’s Adventure: My Father’s Dragon. The last time I conducted this poll I had difficulty finding any clips from it. That’s still a huge problem but at least I was able to find this Japanese puppet show. This is just the first of many:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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