John Ronald’s Dragons is a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing on the parts of his life that inspired his fantasy writing. The book invites you to see Gandalf in a headmaster who smoked a pipe, dragon’s smoke in the smoke pouring out of smokestacks in an industrial city, and the frightening Mines of Moria in World War I trenches.
The author, Caroline McAlister, is an English professor who teaches Tolkien, so the book carries with it an air of authority. The back matter includes an Author’s Note with more biographical details than are in the main text, a Catalog of Tolkien’s Dragons, and Quotes from Tolkien’s Scholarly Writing on Dragons, as well as a Bibliography.
The art manages to marry the everyday with the fantastical in wonderful illustrations. The endpapers are probably my favorite so far this year. I especially loved the Illustrator’s Note in the back matter, which comments, page by page, on details in the art. The illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, points out that she has painted one of Tolkien’s favorite childhood books, The Red Fairy Book on one spread; that she has added a specific piano in one illustration as homage to Tolkien’s grandfather; comments on how she used “forced perspective” to get in all the landmarks that needed to be in the illustration; and so on and so forth. I wish every illustrator did this! It made the book so much richer for me.
I can imagine parents who love Tolkien sharing this book with their children. I can imagine children being totally captivated by the images of dragons that pop up throughout the book. I wonder what they will take away from the picture book to their first reading of The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Rings, but maybe it will act not as a spoiler but as an accelerator, encouraging kids to plow into the books.
John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook Press: 2017.