And we’ve come to the end of our week! (Cue the Rebecca Black song.) Welcome to the FIFTH installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, our new series in which we spend an entire business week profiling the various books that my five-year-old daughter and I checked out from our local library last week. We came home with five books and we’ve been listing the books in the order they were selected, so today we’ll talking about the fifth and final book we chose to take home with us. Our fifth title was a chapter book – How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowell, which follows the “heroic misadventures” of a young Viking-in-training named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III.
But before I start talking about How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, you need to know THREE things:
1. The How to Train Your Dragon movie was a very, very loose adaptation of the original book. (There are some significant differences.)
2. We have not actually finished reading How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. We’ve only had it out for a few days and it’s a 272-page book. My daughter and I read a few chapters at bedtime most nights (but I don’t out her down every night). So… I won’t be talking about many specifics regarding How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.
3. I absolutely love – LOVE – the How to Train Your Dragon series. For me, it will forever be the first chapter book series that my daughter ever fell in love with, which has won it a very special place in my heart.
Are we all set on my three very important things? (Insert self-mocking emoticon here.) I opened with those because I really wanted to establish exactly why my five-year-old was checking out the fourth chapter in a series of juvenile novels for young readers. It’s because she’s over the moon for the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and she’s INSISTING that we read every single book in the series.
So, how did we start reading the How to Train Your Dragon series? Well, long-time readers of this blog will remember that, in the past, my daughter would never, ever let me read longer books with her at bedtime. At the time, the longest title we’d ever read to her at bedtime was probably one of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books. But several parents we knew were already reading their children chapter books and early YA novels at bedtime, raving about how their kids were just LOVING the first Harry Potter books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and so on. And my wife and I – we wanted in on that action. It just sounded like way too much fun.
My wife beat me to the punch and started reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with our daughter one night as they got ready for bed. (My wife had actually read that same book to our daughter when she was a baby to soothe her as they rocked at night.) After some initial trepidation on our daughter’s part, she eventually settled into a rhythm and realized that she LOVED sitting and listening to her mother read her long-form narratives. She retained a ridiculous amount of detail from the story, she got caught up in the action, she woke up in the morning, asking questions about what she’d read the night before. It was glorious. They quickly burned through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and moved onto other titles like Judith Viorst’s Lulu and the Brontosaurus, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Witches. (Can you guess that we’re big Dahl fans yet?)
However, while my wife and my daughter were enjoying this bedtime-reading renaissance, I was COMPLETELY left out in the cold. It was horrible. I’d see them bonding and spending weeks at a time, having private conversations about the books they were reading, and, whenever I’d show up at bedtime with a chapter book, my daughter would take one look at me and say, “No, Daddy, let’s read [SHORTER BOOK WE’VE READ A MILLION TIMES BEFORE].” She just wouldn’t relent. I BEGGED. I PLEADED. I offered to read her whatever she wanted, even if it was completely NOT age-appropriate. (Honest to God, had she asked me to read her The Hunger Games, I would’ve.) But she wasn’t having it. She didn’t want to read chapter books at bedtime with her daddy. Which, if I can be blunt, totally sucked. I was so, so jealous.
But then something changed. Somehow, Cressida Cowell‘s How to Train Your Dragon books started to get on my daughter’s radar. She hadn’t seen the movie – I tried to show it to her once, but the opening scenes were too intense for her at the time and she asked me to turn it off – but, for whatever reason, she was becoming very aware of the series. She saw several ads for them in some of her favorite comic books and, in the advertisements, she was really taken by the illustrations and words like “Vikings,” “Pirates”, “Adventure”, and, of course, “Dragons.” She then stumbled upon the shelf with the How to Train Your Dragon books at our local library and I caught her flipping through the pages of each title. (She’d occasionally run over and show me a dragon picture she particularly liked.) She also started asking me random questions about the movie again, so I KNEW something was up.
Finally, one day, I grabbed the first volume – How to Train Your Dragon – off the shelf at the library, brought it over to her, and said, “Why don’t we take this one out? We could read it at bedtime.” She gave me hard, appraising look. She thought about it for a minute and finally said, “Maybe we could read a little bit each night. But… only if you read me another book every night too.” I vigorously nodded my head and then, much to the delight of my brain and the disgust of my dignity, my five-year-old daughter gave ME her permission to check a book out from the library. (Sigh…)
I’ll be frank – our first few nights reading How to Train Your Dragon were difficult. My daughter was antsy. She would ask questions after every other sentence I read. And she kept pointing out the differences between the book and the movie… even though she’d only seen maybe five minutes of the movie. But, sure enough, eventually, like it happened with my wife, we fell into our own rhythm and I could see my daughter getting slowly, slowly pulled into the gravity of Cressida Cowell‘s fictional universe. And that was a very cool thing to witness.
She’d be so quiet that I stop and ask, “Are you OK?” and she’d shush me and tell me to keep reading. I could hear her audibly gasp at certain moments of action and danger. And, if our final chapter of the night ended in a cliffhanger, she’d BEG me to keep reading “just one more, just ONE MORE” chapter, just so she could know that everything was going to be all right. Doesn’t that just sound sublime? Doesn’t that just sound like the best way to spend an evening? THIS is why people still tell each other stories around campfires. It’s so much fun to watch someone really LISTEN to you. And my daughter loved listening to How to Train Your Dragon.
So, what is the How to Train Your Dragon series all about? Well, if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t know everything about the books – in fact, the world of the book and the world of the movie diverge in some fairly major ways.
In Cressida Cowell‘s fictional world, we’re introduced to a young Viking named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the adolescent heir to the tribe of the Hairy Hooligans, a wild band of marauders from a wet little Northern island known as Berk. Hiccup is not your average Viking youth. He’s slight, thoughtful, introspective, and much more likely to spend his afternoon observing the various breeds of dragons that occupy the cliffs of Berk than fighting, stealing, swearing, or generally acting like any of the other Hairy Hooligans – and that includes his father, the tribe chieftain, Stoick the Vast. (Young kids LOVE the character names in these books.)
How to Train Your Dragon opens at a very important moment in Hiccup’s life. To become a full-fledged member of the tribe, every young Hooligan must pass a sacred initiation ritual, moderated by their Viking teacher, Gobber the Belch. (I told you – great names.) First, they must sneak into the dragon caves on Berk and steal their very own dragon. (They venture into the caves in the dead of winter when the dragons are hibernating and steal young, sleeping dragons.) Next, they must spend months training their dragons to be their pets and companions – the dragons will hunt for them, sniff our treasure for them, and go into battle with them. And, finally, the young trainees and their dragons must pass a series of tests at the annual Thor’s Day Thursday Celebration. If the trainee fails any portion of the test, they’ll be sent into exile forever.
As if the initiation tests weren’t difficult enough, Hiccup also has to contend with Snotface Snotlout, his arrogant cousin who’s good at EVERYTHING and who desperately wants to replace Hiccup as the next destined chief of the tribe, and try to help his best friend Fishlegs, who’s even more hopeless than Hiccup. Their journey into the dragon caves ends badly – Fishlegs accidentally wakes up the hibernating creatures – but every trainee does make it out with a pet dragon. Unfortunately, in his rush to help Fishlegs escape, Hiccup emerges from the cave having stolen the smallest pet dragon the tribe has ever seen. Hiccup becomes a laughingstock when his fellow trainees see his dragon, particularly when they notice that the dragon doesn’t have any teeth, earning it the nickname “Toothless.” (Hiccup gets the much meaner nickname “Useless.”)
Thus, desperate to finish his initiation rites, Hiccup finds himself having to train his tiny toothless dragon, who turns out to be an arrogant, disrespectful little animal. Traditionally, to educate their pet dragons, Vikings simply follow the advice of Professor Yobbish’s widely-respected volume, How to Train Your Dragon, a book that consists of only one sentence – “YELL AT IT!” But Hiccup is determined to train his dragon differently, a task that he may actually be able to accomplish since Hiccup is the only Viking alive who has taught himself to speak Dragonese. That’s right, he can speak to dragons.
(At this point, if you’ve seen the How to Train Your Dragon animated film, you’ve noticed some big differences between the book and the movie. In the movie, Hiccup is still an awkward, intelligent Viking outcast, but his tribe doesn’t train dragons, they go to war with them. And Hiccup eventually befriends a special kind of dragon that he names Toothless, but that version of Toothless is big enough that Hiccup can ride him. Oh yeah, and no dragons actually talk in the movie.)
Despite the fact that he can talk to Toothless, Hiccup doesn’t have much luck training the minuscule dragon. Toothless is defiant, proud, and selfish, and he makes Hiccup’s life more difficult whenever he can. But Hiccup is still fond of his small dragon and, even though he is desperate to pass his Viking training, he won’t resort to yelling or bashing or fighting to solve his problems. That being said, his problems are destined to get a lot, LOT bigger when a “preposterously huge” ancient dragon – a Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus – awakens from its centuries-old slumber and interrupts the Thor’s Day Thursday Celebrations on Berk. When the traditional Viking methods of dragon-taming (i.e. yelling) fail to stop the beast, it’s up to Hiccup and his un-Viking-like knack for logic and reason to save the day and finally prove that the heir to Stoick the Vast is a real Viking Hero.
The premise itself of How to Train Your Dragon is very fun and exciting, but what I most appreciate about Cressida Cowell is how she seamlessly layers in a fairly profound amount of character depth and subtext into her direct, engaging adventure stories. The narratives in the How to Train Your Dragon series (so far) are relatively straightforward. They’re not as super-sized as the later Harry Potter books or as outwardly literary as Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. You could call the Train Your Dragon plots “simple”, but that term is far too reductive. They’re direct. They’re to-the-point. And they’re wonderful for introducing a young reader to how a novel is supposed to work.
As we’ve read through the series, I’ve been able to witness my daughter track character development, work out mysteries before they’re revealed thanks to textual clues, and follow multiple plotlines without getting details confused. The How to Train Your Dragon books are actually teaching her how to read novels, which completely blows my mind. So, yes, the names are very silly and farts and snot are referenced more than a few times, but Cowell expertly uses those populist pleasures to draw kids in, to engage them on their level, and, thanks to their now-rapt attention, she is able to lead them through her inventive, entertaining adventure tales – classical stories of cunning and friendship, which all have a nice shading of modern angst and insight.
There’s a recurring phrase that Cowell uses throughout the series, a phrase about how Hiccup has to learn about “becoming a Hero the Hard Way.” And I just love that. Cowell does this amazing job of making the idea of “being a hero” seem both glamorous and completely unglamorous at the same time. The heroic ideal IS noble. There IS inherent value in being selfless and bold and cunning and brave. However, Cowellis also eager to point out that being a hero can be very, very hard, particularly if you weren’t born with a lot of skill, charisma, or physical prowess.
Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has to work for every little thing in his life. He will always be seen as a runt. He will always have competitors who are bigger and stronger than he is. And he will very, very rarely be thanked for his efforts or good deeds. There’s a great recurring thread through the three (and a half) books we’ve read so far where, even though Hiccup keeps saving the island of Berk from destruction, the other Vikings are still fairly wary of their chief’s oddball son. His fellow Viking trainees are fickle and forgetful and, though Hiccup may get a congratulatory pat on the pat occasionally, he will quickly go back to being the weird skinny kid who isn’t good at sports the very next day.
But that’s why I like Hiccup as a hero so much. He’s a hero for all of the right reasons. He’s never promised glory or social status. He’s almost never going to profit from going out on a limb and risking his life. So why does he face off against a Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus or any of the other various Viking foes in the How to Train Your Dragon books? He does it for the simplest reasons of all. That’s just who he is and it’s the right thing to do. And, even though I call it simple, that’s not a simple concept to grasp AT ALL. But, so far, I’ve had a really fun time having long conversations with my daughter about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s extremely “hard” version of heroism and, every time we finish a new chapter in Hiccup’s life, she immediately wants me to run to the library to check out the next.
Which is all a very, VERY long-winded way to explain why, last week, the fifth book we checked out from the library was How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the How to Train Your Dragon series, by Cressida Cowell.
I could go into far more detail about the coolness of the How to Train Your Dragon books – how I adore the hardcover editions (they’ve got a wonderful heft), how they’re the perfect length, how Cowell’s illustrations really endear her to her young readers, how the various dragon fact-sheets sprinkled throughout the text are fantastic – but, hopefully, you’ve started to get the picture. These are very fun books that I think are perfect starter novels for kids who are either just being introduced to novels for the first time or for kids who are just starting to read novels on their own.
Now that I’ve finished my master thesis on How to Train Your Dragon, I really do hope that this What We Took Out From the Library This Week series was somewhat helpful and/or interesting. If you liked the format, let me know and perhaps this might become a recurring series. And, if you’ve made it this far down the page, as always, thanks for reading!