The dragons of imagination are always there, but sometimes it takes time for them to breathe fire—that’s what McAlister (Holy Molé!) suggests in this thoughtful look at the creative development of John Ronald, aka J.R.R. Tolkien. Reflecting Ronald’s lifelong preoccupation with dragons, Wheeler’s (This Is Our Baby, Born Today) illustrations blend hints of the fantastical and the mundane—chimney plumes and steam from a young Ronald’s oatmeal mimic the smoke curling from an imagined dragon’s nostrils. McAlister moves briskly through Ronald’s life, touching on the influences of his faith, military service, and education before he hit upon the invention of a hobbit, one who would lead him all the way to “a dragon named Smaug.” It’s an ideal lead-in to family readings of The Hobbit. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Jennifer Mattson, Andrea Brown Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Jennifer Rofé, Andrea Brown Literary. (Mar.)
The Horn Book also gave the book a good review and points out how I introduce Tolkien's themes and show their origins in his childhood.
This picture-book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien shows the roots of many themes
later found in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. McAlister introduces
John as a boy who loves horses, trees, words, and especially dragons. We see
young John encountering dragons in Andrew Lang’s famous colored Fairy Books,
making up a language with his cousin, and eventually fighting in WWI, teaching,
and writing stories. Despite Tolkien’s sometimes-difficult young life (after his
mother died, he and his brother lived with an aunt who “didn’t like boys”), the
prevailing tone is one of warmth and security. Wheeler’s illustrations, in what look
like line and watercolor, are deftly executed in light colors with carefully placed
darker shades that ground her compositions. Swirling shapes and trees silhouetted
against pearly skies are reminiscent of Rackham, an appropriate reference given
the subject and time period. The book finishes with Tolkien’s conception of The
Hobbit; the final illustration shows the author “discovering” the great dragon
Smaug in his mountain cave. An author’s note fills in the gaps in Tolkien’s story,
and an illustrator’s note points out pictorial references to actual books, locations,
and people not mentioned in the text. “A Catalog of Tolkien’s Dragons,” “Quotes
from Tolkien’s Scholarly Writing on Dragons,” and a bibliography are appended.
The one not so nice review came from School Library Journal, a big disappointment since I want to sell to schools and libraries:
Gr 1-4–McAlister’s picture book introduction to the life of J.R.R. Tolkien (whom she calls John Ronald) is written in simple, descriptive language—a fragment to six short sentences per page or spread. (“John Ronald was a boy who loved horses. And trees. And strange sounding words.”) Critical to John Ronald’s life were the “stillness, beauty, and peace” of the Catholic Church; his love of English (coming up with new languages and using them to write stories); his lifelong school friends who shared his love of literature; and his dreams of dragons and other fantastical creatures that inhabited the books read to him and his brother by their mother, who died when John Ronald was 12. After marrying, then fighting in the trenches during World War I, Tolkien taught at Oxford University, where he gave lectures, went to meetings, tutored students, and “graded many, many, exams.” The world of the Hobbit and his adventures, created for Tolkien’s own children, became a book in 1937. Wheeler’s pencil-detailed paintings in subdued greens and yellows effectively portray Tolkien’s quiet life and his ability to imagine magical creatures and places (Misty Mountains, Mirkwood Forest) in the countryside around his home. The appended illustrator’s note points out elements in the pictures not mentioned in the text. An author’s note offers more sophisticated facts; a bibliography lists Tolkien biographies for adults. VERDICT This beautifully illustrated introduction to Tolkien’s life for younger readers fails to provide sufficient information to satisfy those old enough to appreciate the lengthy, in-depth storytelling style of his novels.–Susan Scheps, formerly at Shaker Public Library, OH
This last reviewer wanted a different kind of book, a middle grade or YA biography because Tolkien's books are read by middle grade and YA readers. But my conception and Eliza's as well was to write a book about how a writer's imagination begins to take shape in childhood and to write this for children. What I have learned as a teacher from this experience is to be a more thoughtful grader, to think not about the ideal paper I have in my head, but to think about the student's objectives, the student's purpose in creating a piece of writing and whether the student has achieved that purpose. The next set of papers I get, I will ask students to articulate for me what they have tried to realize with this piece of writing. (Just doing that is an important step as a writer.) Then I will try to grade them based on whether their creation does what they meant it to do.