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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Jane and the Dragon
Jane and the Dragon
written and illustrated by Martin Baynton
Jane hated sewing. Every morning she sat with her mother practising her stitches, and every morning she gazed down at the knights practising their swordplay in the courtyard below.
Jane longed to be a knight. Nothing else would do, and she told her mother so.
Her mother laughed. "Such foolishness," she said. "You will be a lady-in-waiting. Perhaps, like me, you will become a lady-in-waiting to the Queen herself."
Jane was very upset. But she was determined to be a knight and she went to tell her father.
Her father laughed. "What nonsense," he said. "Only boys can become knights."
--Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton, p. 1-3.
Jane wants to be a knight, not a lady-in-waiting like her mother is training her to be. But everyone she tells laughs at her and tells her she can't do it--except the Jester, who has a secret wish to be a knight but is too short and not brave enough. The Jester gives her his custom-built armor, and Jane practices in secret. Then one day, when all the knights are away at a jousting carnival, the prince is kidnapped by a dragon. Jane rushes off after the dragon to save the prince. She fights the dragon, then befriends him, and brings the prince home safely. When she removes her helmet, and everyone sees who she really is, people are shocked at first, but then supportive of Jane. Jane gets the king to agree that she will become a knight, with every Saturday off to visit the dragon. This is a strong, sweet story about following your heart, bravery and strong girls, fighting sexism and stereotypes, and doing what feels right to you. This is an important book for both girls and boys to read.
Baynton's (Jane and the Magician) text opens immediately with both part of the problem--Jane hating sewing, but being expected to do it because she is a girl--and with Jane's day-to-day life before the moment of change (she watches the knights each day as she sews). On the very next page, Baynton leaps into the main problem--that Jane wants to be a knight, but no one thinks she can be one because she's a girl. Although realistic, it felt like there were too many people who laughed at and ridiculed Jane for her dream--her mother, father, the King, the prince, and the knights. After three people, it may become a bit overwhelming for some readers. However, Baynton helps soften this harshness by telling the reader that the knights did not mean to be unkind (although they were) and by giving Jane an ally--the jester--and having Jane actively work towards her dream, donning armor and practicing each day.
Reader empathy is created quickly for Jane, as most readers know what it feels like to be laughed at or to be told they can't do something they really want to do, as well as through Jane being so determined, tenacious, spunky, and brave (she doesn't even hesitate to go after the dragon when he kidnaps the prince). The lack of support that Jane's parents initially show is tempered by the support they show her in the end when she becomes a knight, and this helps make the ending uplifting. That Jane succeeds in not only rescuing the prince, but also in befriending the dragon and becoming a knight brings strong good feeling, and reminds readers that success is possible.
Baynton makes it clear that people do not believe that Jane can or should be a knight solely because she is a girl. This sexism and prejudice is triumphantly overruled when Jane is the one to save the prince, and when she becomes a knight after all. Jane is such a strong role model--she is brave, tenacious, strong, and compassionate, and she follows her heart, believes in herself, and does not let anyone else tell her what she can't do.
There is a lot of text in this picture book; some wordiness could be cut, including some telling and repetitive actions. There is a bit too much telling, where the reader is told what characters feel, instead of showing us and allowing us to figure it out for ourselves. Still, the story is engrossing and emotionally engaging.
A few well chosen details throughout the text help make the setting and characters seem more real--the straw horse that the knights set Jane on, the dragon's spiky brown wing--though I would have liked to see a few more details. Dialogue helps make the text move quickly along, especially when Jane and the dragon talk.
The climax and resolution is built up to through the previous ridiculing that Jane experienced, and then her fight with the dragon, until finally Jane reveals herself to the kingdom and gains acceptance. The ending is satisfying, with Jane gaining acceptance and admiration from her parents, the king, and the citizens, and through Jane choosing to dance with the Jester (who gave her the suit of armor) instead of all the handsome young men. Jane did what was right so many times throughout the book--what was right for her, and what was right and fair with the dragon and with the Jester.
There are such strong, positive messages woven into the story text--that girls can do whatever they set out to do, that you don't have to give up just because someone tells you that you can't do something, that it's important to believe in yourself and follow your dreams, and that it's important to have compassion for others (even when Jane fights the dragon, both Jane and the dragon do not kill each other, but instead become friends). The text also reminds readers that you don't have to be confined by others' expectations of you (the dragon kidnaps the prince because he's expected to, and Jane suggests that instead he do the unexpected.) Emotional truths help the writing feel more believable; when Jane asks the dragon what he really wants, he says he just wants to be loved--something most of us want.
Baynton's colored-pencil illustrations are gentle and somewhat muted, with the grainy texture of the paper pleasingly showing through. The illustrations have a slightly indistinct, fuzzy feeling to them as the outlines are not sharp or thick, and some setting details and characters fade into the background. Rich, bright colors are used throughout the book, especially greens, yellows, oranges, and blues, and that, plus the repeated texture and fuzzy quality, helps to visually pull the illustrations together.
Baynton's characters are cartoon-like yet expressive with a hint of realism, especially in setting details and clothing. No one ever looks scary or truly mean; even the dragon looks cute, with huge eyes and a wide smile. There is a good use of light and shadow, which helps to give the characters some roundedness and the setting some depth. The appearance of depth also occurs through some of the background details fading (allowing the foreground details to be more pronounced). Characters are also made the focal point through some backgrounds being simply a gradation of color, and through the bright colors in hair (especially Jane's) and in attire. Setting details are depicted only as much as are needed to set the stage.
Humor is brought into the story through some of the illustrations (where it does not appear in the text), such as through the opening illustration that shows how many of the knights are playing or goofing off instead of practicing (one knight is swinging his sword to hit a ball as if he were playing golf or cricket, another is throwing a ball up into the air, another is simply swinging his sword) which contrasts with Jane's desire to be a knight, and the seriousness with which she later practices. Humor, and a child-like excitement, is also brought into the story through the illustrations that show Jane practicing being a knight through swordplay (where a target is painted on a suit of armor and a shield, and a feather duster is in the suit of armor's hand), horseplay (where she sits on a straw rocking horse to charge with her lance), and victory speeches (where she looks theatrical).
Baynton's illustrations show the movement from Jane wanting her dream and trying to go after it, to having it in her reach and then actually becoming a knight. Early on, she is pictured in a long green dress, and when she first receives her armor, the top half is placed over top her long dress. In the next few pages when she is practicing, we see her with full armor, including over her legs, the dress sticking out at one point, and then it disappears. Then, in the closing illustration, Jane appears in a dress again at the ball, suggesting that she can play whatever role she wants to.
This is one of those books that every girl--and every boy--should have. It actively challenges stereotypes and sexism, encourages every reader to make their own choices about how they want to think and act, all while entertaining. Jane and the Dragon also reverses the female role commonly found in fairy tales--giving at least one girl a character of utter strength, courage, and determination.
If you like this book, there is another with the same character: Jane and the Magician.
-Added June 4, 2007
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