The Reluctant Dragon
Kenneth Grahame and Ernest H. Shepard
Holiday House, 1938
Written and illustrated by two of the more important figures in children's literature (Grahame of The Wind and the Willows and Shepard of Winnie the Pooh), I never read this book as a child, but I did grow up loving the 1941 Disney short version. Good thing for me, my son (being the peaceable creature that he is) loves the story immensely. For those of you not familiar, it's really the most imaginative idea-- one full of old time legend infused with a contemporary spark. Originally published as a chapter in Greene's book Dream Days, the tale begins when we meet a shepherd and his wife and hear about their son, a devourer of books and an authority on fairy tales and myths. But it's not until the shepherd comes home one evening with a tale of his own that the story really begins.
"He was sticking half-way out of a cave, and seemed to be enjoying of the cool of the evening in a poetical sort of way. He was as big as four horse-carts, and all covered with shiny scales--deep-blue scales at the top of him, shading off to a tender sort 'o green below. As he breathed, there was that sort of flicker over his nostrils that you see over our chalk roads on a baking windless day in summer. He had his chin in his paws, and I should say he was meditating about things. Oh, yes, a peaceable sort 'o beast enough, and not ramping or carrying on or doing anything but what quite right and proper. I admit all that. And yet, what am I to do? Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn't see that end of him--I ain't used to 'em, and I don't hold with 'em, and that's a fact!"
The boy sets his father straight about the supposed fierceness of dragons and heads out the next morning to meet the monster for himself. Here enters the delightful poetry-writing creature who is refined and elegant in his manner and most certainly not out to terrorize anyone. He's simply looking for a place to settle down and contemplate the beauty of the hills... but no sooner than we fall in love... a knight appears on the scene with an idea to slay the sweet dear. Sensing a sure tragedy, the boy gets in cahoots with St. George and the dragon and they hatch a plan to put on a show for the townspeople that will make everyone happy in the end.
It's a great book for boys who are very much boys and love knights and fights and stories and things, but who have a soft spot for the animals like my little wee one at home. Shepard's illustrations are pure magic and though When We Were Very Young was his first, he illustrated dozens of titles during his 97 years on this earth. It makes me want to start digging up more of them. In this one alone, the little boy's tiny expressions and pageboy hair cut just make me melt. Don't even get me started on Christopher Robin. Swoon.