Kenny and the Dragon is now in paperback!
Tony DiTerlizzi's Kenny and the Dragon, his first solo chapter book, is an homage to Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon as well as a literary name dropper. I'm not sure what copyright laws allow Gregory Maguire to mess with the characters of L Frank Baum's Oz books, or countless authors to toy with the characters Jane Austen brought into this world in ways that would cause them to hide in shame the rest of their lives, but it also allows DiTerlizzi to take the basic plot and characters from Grahame's book and flesh them out in a very contemporary way, adding close to 50 pages to the text and changing humans into animals.
I'm just going to go through the list of literary references in the book for my own entertainment before I write anything else. First off, Kenny, the main rabbit of the story, is named after the author Kenneth Grahame, as is the dragon, Grahame. Neither characters had names beyond "Boy" and "Dragon" in the original. Rather than the Downs, the hill that the dragon inhabits is called "Shepard's Hill," a reference to Ernest H Shepard, illustrator of The Reluctant Dragon, as well as (along with several other illustrators over time) The Wind in the Willows, and, perhaps most famously, AA Milne's Winnie-The-Pooh books. In fact, in one full page illustation in Kenny and the Dragon, Kenneth Grahame's character from Wind in the Willows, the auto-obsessed Mr Toad, can be seen driving down the street as Kenny rides his bicycle into town. And, one of the other main characters, George, is a badger, a nod to THE Badger from The Wind in the Willows. And, lastly, there are the literary references. Perhaps to place the story distinctly in the past, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf and it's monster, Grendel, are discussed by the main characters of the story. References are also made to Shakespeare's plays A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear as well as the Brothers Grimm, which actually places the story in the not-so-distant past rather than the medieval times of the original story.
Most of the tweaks and alterations DiTerlizzi makes are acceptable and necessary if the story is to have added depth. However, there are two changes that stand out in my mind as being unappealing and unnecessary. One of the most charming aspects of Grahame's story, for me, was the way he described the parents of the Boy, who loved to read. They as treated him as "more or less an equal" and, as shepherd and a homemaker, they "sensibly thought it a fair division of labor that they should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning." Kenny's parents seem a bit like characters from a Disney movie and they are drawn a bit like them, too. I couldn't help thinking of the poor, but wise and kind, rabbit villagers from Disney's animated movie Robin Hood whenever I looked at the illustrations or read about Kenny's parents. Kenny's father is a skinny country bumpkin who utters words like "enchantificated." His mother is a stout and sensible woman who can cure any problem with a tasty dish whipped up from her kitchen. I miss the simple parents from Grahame's story who respected their son's knowledge, took his word for it when he said the dragon was an ok chap, and left him to do his own thing. The Boy's father was "formally introduced [to the dragon] and many compliments and inquiries were exchanged. His wife, however, though expressing her willingness to do anything she could ... could not be brought to recognize him formally." Kenny's parents are both comic relief and calm wisdom at various times, but would have been just as powerful a presence if they had been more restrained, I think.
The other new aspect of the story that bothered me was the constant description of Kenny's feelings, which were mostly varying levels of anxiety that were described as "river-stone stomach aches" and "fiery feelings" in his throat. The anxiety arises from the conflict between Grahame, Kenny's new friend, and George, the bookstore owner, Kenny's old friend and, unbeknownst to him, former knight and dragon slayer. When Kenny realizes that the townsfolk are in a lather over the fight to come, he rushes to George to tell him he can't fight the pacifist Grahame. However, he feels intimidated and overwhelmed by George's talk of dragon slaying and can't bring himself to reveal Grahame's true nature to the knight. Kenny's parents (and a good meal) intervene and everything is worked out, but not without a lot of distress and ear-tugging on Kenny's part. One thing I love about fairy tales is the black and white aspect of the characters as well as the occasional moral ambiguity. However, this is entirely different from the frequent description of Kenny's feelings. It almost seemed like someone told DiTerlizzi that a kid's book has to have many references to genuine childhood emotions to make it palatable for kids. In fact, I think my main problem with DiTerlizzi's retelling of the story is just how much contemporary stuff he crammed into it - from childhood anxieties to multiple cultural references. The story strayed from the core of the original a bit too far.
As in the original, the conflict is resolved with a performance that the villagers are meant to believe is real. DiTerlizzi gives it quite a bit of Hollywood drama, with mood lighting, fog machines and other special effects, detracting a bit for the knock-down fight that the audience in the original was so anxious to see. However, DiTerlizzi does add a nice touch at the end when the trick is discovered by a "ruffian porcupine" and, instead of becoming enraged and demanding the dragon's head, the audience yells "ENCORE!" This also leads to the "troupe" performing their act for one week at the royal palace for the king and his court.
I in the end, the message is still the same as in the original, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but I guess I'm just too much of a purist - or else Anglophile - to appreciate a new version of the story with cute animals and anxiety laden social situations added to the plot. However, this doesn't mean kids won't like it. If nothing else, they can read it and hopefully will be inspired to read the original or, even better, seek out Beowulf, Shakespeare or the Brother's Grimm!