I’m breaking my own mental rules here. Look, no, I don’t understand how I can have mental rules about what to write on my own blog, either, but I thought that writing about Steve Light twice so quickly, and writing about an earlier book of his, too, so soon after writing about Swap! and spotlighting it in Best of the Blog so far… OK, let me clarify: I am in no way related to, affiliated with, or compensated for writing about Steve Light. I’m just a really big fan, and, more to the point, so is my daughter.
Let me back up a little. I love dragons. I study Welsh literature, you know, and it sort of comes with the territory, I think. I love them so much that, you know, I want to share them with my Changeling. So I got books about dragons, of course! As one does. But she was not so sure. Maybe they were scary. Maybe… I dunno, let’s read I Have to Go! instead, OK? Until I got a lightbulb moment: “The Changeling loves Swap!,” I thought, “and Steve Light is a genius author and illustrator and wrote a book about a dragon not long ago.” So, naturally, I procured Have You Seen My Dragon? from my brilliant local bookstore, and now, every single night, the Changeling says, “Let’s read about where’s my dragon before I go to bed.” And, here’s the thing: I’m still not bored. And I’ve read this, shall we say, a lot of times. I prefer not to think that I am very simple, so let’s instead go back to what I said about Steve Light above: the man’s a genius with his art and writing.
This has many of the features the Changeling and I both loved about Swap!: The text is simple and the art is rich. Before, I thought only about how reading the simple text worked so well for me with my daughter. Reading the book ran along very smoothly while we picked out objects in the art from pelicans to watching for that mermaid to pop up again.
I want to look at Have You Seen My Dragon? from a slightly different perspective. Let me emphasize immediately that it is, truly, a hell of a fun book, because I’m going to utter a word which I normally take as a warning sign: pedagogical. This is an excellent book from a pedagogical perspective. In other words, kids can learn from it without even knowing or caring that they’re learning. Folks, dear and darling readers, I know and you know that reading should be fun and enjoyable and who even cares about learning except as a side-effect which happens to be awfully nice when you’re reading… but we feel that way because we’re readers, and readers
have to be indoctrinated into our sublime order I mean they have to learn to love reading at some point. Slip of the tongue there.
The point is that Steve Light writes the kind of book which enriches children, rather like another current favourite of the family, Peter Sís, and I have no idea whether it’s at all conscious in either case.
Have You Seen My Dragon? is an adventure story and a counting book all in one. It’s got a lot going on in very few words. Here’s the plot: a child has lost his dragon and he goes on a hunt across New York to find said dragon until– spoiler alert– he finds the dragon in Chinatown.
But the fun is in the illustrations. There are two features of the illustrations which engage… OK, I was going to say “engage your child,” but it’s time to admit that I am also entertained. Let’s look at a two-page spread here (this is the Changeling’s favourite because of the boats):
Note that the page, like Swap!, is mostly black and white. (Steve Light, among his many other virtues, works in my favourite medium, pen and ink, using excellent fountain pens. No, I’m not biased in favour of people who love the same pens I do, not at all.) He picks out a few elements in colour. This accomplishes our two features here. a) There’s the counting game: in this case we have four sailboats in colour; b) the rest of the page becomes a “hunting” game: Where’s the dragon? What else do you see? I find that part beyond fun. I fully adore how some portion of the page will always be thrown into relief by the use of colour– OK, at this point I’m just going to taunt you: buy the book, and then look for the “Castle” page (10 Cans of Paint), that’s got some of the best use of colour I’ve seen in a picture book of any kind.
That said, my favourite part of the book for me, as the adult reader, is hunting through the page for little things: the different types of people represented, the different boats, all the little things that make the pictures so rich. I especially love watching for how the dragon is incorporated in different ways on the different pages: there’s a level of humour and whimsy to Steve Light’s art in that respect which should really be awarded a “Medal of Fantastical Nonsense.” (I’ve got the award all planned out: the prize would be a bust of Edward Lear.) The dragon with his giant ice cream will win child and adult hearts everywhere, I know.
I love reading it with the Changeling, of course, because watching her scan the pages for the dragon, or count the sailboats is enormous fun. But I know it can grow with her. I watch my poor students with their little readers, and I imagine reading it with them. They’re a bit older than my daughter, so I imagine them counting with, shall we say, greater accuracy. I imagine them laughing over the absurd situations the dragon finds himself in (which my daughter accepts as entirely normal, of course, because that’s the magic of toddlers). I imagine them really appreciating the art and the cleverness of it, in other words, and it makes me want to buy a copy for each and every student in the class.
But the greatest gift of this book, really? The best part? Thank you, Steve Light, for giving my daughter a dragon to love.
P.S. In other news, Telemachos finally came out of hiding for close on 30 whole seconds!