In fact, as I was reading The Reluctant Dragon for the first time, I kept flipping back to the cover to make sure I wasn't reading an AA Milne book. At 58 pages, The Reluctant Dragon reads like a very long picture book. In the fantasy saturated world that is children's literature today, this story won't rate much more than a nostalgic blip, however, in 1898 when it was first published I'm sure it was a novel idea to have a dragon who describes himself as a counfoundedly "lazy beggar" and continually fails to grasp the severity of his situation in a cave upon the "wide ocean-bosom of the Downs" where he has set up his abode. The language of this story is at turns poetic and humorous and the Boy of the story is a prototype of fictional boys to come in that he has a mind and interests of his own, but he is also eager to see a good knock-down, drag out fight between a dragon and a knight. His very liberal parents, being a shepherd and a homemaker, find it an equal division of familial labor when their son spends his time reading and acquiring book-learning, "which often came in useful in a pinch," and they take on the more practical tasks. And, in fact, this tactic does come in useful when the father encounters a dragon on the Downs and his son is offers to sort things out, having read much about this species.
The dragon is a creative sort with artistic sensibilities and can't be bothered to fight, despite his reputation to the contrary. He would rather lounge in the grass and recite his writing to the Boy and listen to the Boy's own works. However, the villagers are a rowdy bunch who are always looking fora fight. They are also the biggest story tellers around and soon enough they have spread tales of the supposed destruction and devastation wrought by this sensitive dragon. St George shows up to fight the dragon and save the villagers and a very funny, clever, resolution is devised by the Boy, St George and the Dragon. There are some salient points about not judging a book by it's cover, prejudice and herd mentality that can be drawn from this book if you feel the need to make it into something more than the entertaining story that it is, but really, I think it is best read as just that. Of course, more illustrations and color illustrations by Shephard, along the lines of the work he did for the 1931 edition of The Wind in the Willows would definitely have been a welcome addition.
I think this book would definitely be a fun read out loud and a quick read for anyone hovering around the third or fourth grade reading level. And, for other dragon lovers looking for some lower level stories, I highly recommend Bill Peet's How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head.
The brilliant illustrator of Spiderwick Chronicles fame, Tony DiTerlizzi, has himself penned an homage to The Reluctant Dragon in the form of an animal story with nods to Kenneth Grahame, called Kenny and the Dragon.