After reading/listening to How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell I can't tell you HOW MUCH I wish I had gotten around to reading this book, published in 2003, BEFORE the movie came out. Don't get me wrong, I liked the movie. I paid to see it in the theater with my kids and it was breathtaking and heart stopping and even funny. But is it SO DIFFERENT from the book!! I was shocked at how different it is! Apples and oranges, almost! Thus the caps and the exclamation points, which I will now forsake. If you (and your kids) saw the movie and have feelings about it that are keeping you from reading the book, I hope you will abandon them after reading my review. If you (or your kids) didn't like the movie and avoided the book because of this, like I said, the book is completely different. If you are worried that the book is too much like the movie and you (or your child) will be bored with the book, like I said, the book is completely different. Read on for the real story and what makes this book so absolutely wonderful.
How To Train Your Dragon begins with a note from the now elderly Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III telling the reader that his is the story of "becoming a Hero the Hard Way." Although he is the son of the great Viking Stoick the Vast, Chief of the Hairy Hooligan Tribe of the Isle of Berk, Hiccup is a timid, watchful sort who spends much of his time alone studying dragons. In the Hairy Hooligan Tribe, tradition dictates that all boys perform a right of passage that requires them to crawl into the dragon hibernaculum and select a pet that they will then have to train and exhibit at the annual Thor'sday Thursday Celebration.
When things go horribly wrong at the hibernaculum, one of my favorite scenes in the book, Hiccup's brains and big heart save the day and get him stuck with a measly little dragon he names Toothless. Toothless is my absolute favorite character in the book - and completely different from the absolutely cool Toothless in the movie. Book Toothless is a whiny, greedy, self-centered dragon who gleefully tells Hiccup, who realizes he can speak Dragonese, that dragons are only interested in themselves, in part because humans, who have traditionally used dragons as work beasts, have never given them a reason to behave otherwise. In the book, Toothless has a special, hiss-like way of speaking and gets his own special font. On the audio, brilliantly narrated by Gerard Doyle, who has also narrated several of my favorite fantasy kid's books, Toothless sounds even better!
Hiccup spends much of his time trying to train Toothles, a Basic Brown dragon, using his own methods (which involve treating him the way many people treat their dogs today) as opposed to the Hooligan way which is nothing more than yelling at your dragon as loudly as possible. Hiccup discovers this when he locates the one book in the village, How to Train Your Dragon by Professor Yobbish, BA, MA Hons, Cantab, Etc, published by Big Axe Books, 10th Anniversary Edition, winner of the Best Book for Barbarians Gold Award. This is all presented wonderfully in a full-page illustration of the book cover of this book within a book. While Cowell's books don't have as many illustrations as a Wimpy Kid book, they do have quite a few and they are all clever and funny. It's pretty fun to watch Toothless be a spoiled brat and it makes the moment when he is called on to perform a selfless act all the more suspenseful. I really wasn't sure if he would stay true to his nature or Hiccup and was pleasantly surprised by how Cowell pulled it off.
Besides dealing with the embarrassingly small, meek and obnoxious Toothless, Hiccup has to deal with his usurping cousin, Snotface Snotlout, son of Baggybum the Beerbelly, Stoick the Vast's younger brother. Snotlout, who snagged a Monstrous Nightmare dragon he names Fireworm, is good at everything and a natural (if bullying) leader. When the Thor'sday celebration goes horribly wrong and all the boys are about to be exiled for their failures, two enormous sea dragons awake from their eternal slumbers and beach themselves on Berk. I don't mean to ruin the story for you, but I do want you to get a taste of just how different the book is. While the adults argue over how to rid themselves of the sea dragons, the boys, lead by the clever Hiccup, get the job done. Cowell consistently takes what might have been a predictable story to the next level, weaving plot twists and turns into the story, making for a memorable book. However, what I like best about Cowell's writing is her sense of humor. This comes through most in the names of the characters, which a still find myself running through in my mind to this day. Hiccup's best friend Fishlegs names his dragon Horrorcow because it is cow-like, but he wants people to perceive him as frightening. There is Vallhallarama, Hiccup's mother who is a great warrior, Mogadon the Meathead, Chief of the Meathead tribe from the neighboring island and his son, Thuggory.
How To Train Your Dragon is not a hard read and the plot may seem a bit thin to an adult, but it is perfect for a reader who is ready to move up to longer, more complex chapter books from something like the Magic Tree House or Junie B Jones. And, the fact that it is (soon to be) a ten book series also appeals to young readers. Above all else, Cowell has created some wonderful fantasy that is devoid of the darkness that drives the plots of so much of what is popular today. Her bad guys are more in the Roald Dahl vein, buffoons who have too much power and ego but get their comeuppance in the end, making it even more readable.
How to Be a Pirate
How to Speak Dragonese
How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse
How to Twist a Dragon's Tale
A Hero's Guide to Deadly Dragons
How to Ride a Dragon's Storm
How to Break a Dragon's Heart
How to Steal a Dragon's Sword
and, coming soon, book 10 -
How to Steal a Dragon's Jewel
Source: Purchased book and audio