75 Years of ‘My Father’s Dragon’

GeekDad
5 min readDec 22, 2023
75 Years of 'My Father's Dragon'

This year sees the 75th anniversary of the childhood classic My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This is not a book that I encountered in my childhood, but I am very happy to have been introduced to it in my middle age thanks to this new edition. TIME magazine included My Father’s Dragon on their list of the 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time. I personally have been circling it in my local bookstore for about a year, so I was delighted by this edition.

My Father’s Dragon is a tale within a tale within a tale. The unnamed child of the named father narrates the story of how, long ago, their father was told a story about a dragon and set off on an adventure to rescue him. The baby dragon had the misfortune of falling onto Wild Island, where the island’s lazy animal inhabitants captured him and forced him into serving them, making him fly them across a dangerous river each time they wished to cross. He is kept on a chain, with a bell to summon his services. The baby dragon’s sad tale reaches young Elmer Elevator by way of a cat who has given up adventuring. Elmer sets out on a rescue mission that is both charming and thrilling.

To start with we have to take note of the marvelous talking cat, telling a story about his ill-spent youth and the adventures he had. This is immediately introduced with the father’s name, Elmer Elevator. (Has there ever been a more delightful name for a protagonist?) This sets up the whole story as a whimsical whirlwind that continues to be delightful page after page. The narrative structure, the choice of animals, the descriptions of the island, it is one of those children’s stories that you can sink into, much like entering a magical world through a wardrobe. When Elmer packs his bag, you can just feel yourself as a small child packing a similar bag. With such a wide array of useful and unusual things, each item he packs plays an important part in the story that could not be predicted. My only lament is that I didn’t discover this book 10 years ago when all of my children were young.

The 75th anniversary edition recreates almost completely the first edition, with illustrations by the author’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett. Originally, due to cost, the pages and later the maps were not produced in color, but this time there is color throughout. As someone who is not typically a fan of the colorization of movies, I was a little surprised at this, but I love the color choices made in here so much that I find it hard to be a purist. The dragon is especially enchanting.

Images: Random House Children’s Books
This book is a nice blend of story and picture and is a great transitional piece between picture and chapter books, which is perfect for where my second grader currently is. Where else can you save the day armed with chewing gum? Or fight off crocodiles with lollipops? Or adventure on a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with copious amounts of tangerines? It’s the adventure every child (and childlike adult) wants to live.

Each chapter is oriented around a particular animal that Elmer must get past, parsing each situation into its own mini-tale within the narrative. It’s a wonderful framework and brings to mind readings of Aesop’s Fables. My favorite animal character has to be the rhinoceros whose once beautiful horn is now dirty and disgusting and a sore spot for the disgruntled ungulate. However, that might be just because I am obsessed with the dental hygiene of all my children right now.

Taking less than an hour to read aloud, it is the ideal book to pick up and read with your young family on this year’s Jolabokaflod. The plot is straightforward with just enough repetition to engage young ones and enough adventure to propel them through the story. It combines the right amount of danger with a thrilling ending, but you never feel too unsafe. The characters might be simple, but like fables and fairy tales they are creatively defined and all interesting in a variety of ways. While I would never encourage my 8-year-old to sneak away from home, I do admire young Elmer. Surprisingly for a 75-year-old tale, the language and story aren’t as outdated as you would expect. I’ll admit to being a cis-gendered white woman, but to my eyes, there appears to be no casual racism or gender problems in this narrative. It has the right amount of whimsy and none of the problems of something like Peter Pan.

One warning, though. If like me you were disappointed in the amount of dragon to movie ratio in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug then you should know that the titular dragon makes a very late appearance in the tale. There are, however, two further adventures in My Father’s Dragon series, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland.

If only for the fact that you find out in book two that the dragon’s name is Boris, I cannot wait to check them out. The third book sees the dragon finally get home to his family, and I’m not sure I am emotionally stable enough for that one at the moment!

GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.

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