John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien
Written by Caroline McAlister; Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2017
ISBN # 978-1626720923
“John Ronald was a boy who loved horses. And trees. And strange sounding words. But most of all, John Ronald loved dragons.” Such fascination would eventually inspire John Ronald, who took the pen name J. R. R. Tolkien, to create one of the most beloved fantasy adventures of all time and become one of the twentieth century’s most captivating writers. As a child, John Ronald’s imagination was nurtured by a mother who read him stories and epic tales of battles between courageous heroes and dragons, a cousin who delighted in inventing languages with him, and a group of good friends who held secret tea parties in the library. When his mother died, John Ronald found solace in dreams of exploring dragon dens. But as life continued and John Ronald grew older, got married, fought in World War I, and became a professor at Oxford University, he forgot about dragons for a while. Then, one day, while grading exams, he wrote The Hobbit’s opening line and found his dragon again. Author Caroline McAlister’s simple, yet detailed narration traces the roots of John Ronald’s literary creation throughout his childhood. Illustrator Eliza Wheeler nimbly incorporates the majestic components of John Ronald’s imagination into her pencil-detailed, painted depiction of his quiet, everyday life. Back matter includes notes from the author and illustrator, a bibliography, a catalog of Tolkien’s dragons, and quotations from Tolkien’s academic writing about dragons. An ideal picture book biography for the younger set, John Ronald’s Dragons tells a simple and charming story of a remarkable storyteller.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Dragons in Children’s Media. Dragons have played important roles in children’s literature, film, and other media for decades. Besides Smaug, other memorable dragons include Falcor from The Neverending Story, the Hungarian Horntail from the Harry Potter series, the Disney film Pete’s Dragon, and Puff the Magic Dragon. Brainstorm a list of these dragons with students, and have them go back to the book, film, song, etc. for each dragon to refresh their knowledge and collect more accurate descriptions and understandings of them. Have students create a gallery of the dragons with pictures and text about each one. If they are able to publish their gallery online, they might do so via a class blog, wiki, or presentation tool such as Prezi or Glogster. You might also want to have students select the dragon whose story they would most want to be a part of and explain why.
- Reading Tolkien. Use this book as an introduction to a unit on Tolkien’s works. Share some passages or the entire novel of The Hobbit with them. Introduce the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Older students can begin reading these novels, while younger students can listen to an audiobook version of the tales. Invite students to return to John Ronald’s Dragons, especially the author’s and illustrator’s notes at the end, to enhance their understanding of each book.
- First Lines. The first line of The Hobbit is featured in John Ronald’s Dragons as a memorable and recognizable first line of a novel. Gather a collection of well-known first lines of children’s literature–such as “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”, “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”–and challenge students to match those lines to the books they begin. Have students brainstorm other first lines they know from children’s literature and identify their corresponding titles. Display these first lines on a chart in the classroom or elsewhere in the school to represent the range of literature that is memorable and impactful to your students.
- Children’s Biographies about Writers. Gather a text set of children’s biographies about writers, such as Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, by Melissa Sweet; A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, by Andrea Davis Pinkney; The Pilot and the Little Prince, by Peter Sis; and even W is for Webster, by Tracey Fern, or The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant. After reading them, have students compare and contrast them in terms of content, style, back matter, and information about the writer. What, if anything, is similar about how the biographies portray these writers? What is different? How, why, and when do the writers begin writing? What is their writing process like? What lessons and strategies do they learn from studying these writers can they apply to their own writing?
- Inventing Language. Given that the languages in Tolkien’s novels are a distinctive feature of his writing, it is remarkable that he created much of it as a child. Challenge students to invent their own languages, along with the rules and grammatical structures of those languages. You might begin by having them inquire into and analyze the rules and grammatical structures of the native languages spoken by students in your class. Have students identify patterns and differences across languages and then apply those findings to their invented language. You might also want to read aloud Du Iz Tak?, by Carson Ellis, or even excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky with them to show how invented languages still follow patterns, rules, and grammatical structures. The article “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Guide to Inventing a Fantasy Language” is also a fascinating read. As an extension, have students apply their invented language to narrate wordless picture books or other images.
- The Role of Fantasy. This books makes an argument for the valuable role fantasy and imagination play in both children’s and adults’ lives. Discuss this notion with students, having them consider various ways that nurturing fantasy and imagination can be beneficial. Share books with them about this topic, such as The Wonder, by Faye Hanson, What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, and Use Your Imagination, by Nicola O’Byrne. You might also want to have them do research on this topic, reading articles and reports about such benefits. Then have students explore how fantasy and imagination is encouraged (or not encouraged) in their school and daily lives. Encourage them to find constructive ways to bring fantasy into their lives.
- Fantasy Genre Study. Engage students in a genre study of classic and contemporary fantasy novels. What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction? What subgenres of fantasy are there? What character archetypes usually appear in fantasy novels? What about common symbols or objects? How has fantasy evolved since Tolkien’s time? How has it remained the same? Why does it continue to be a popular genre for children to read?
- Intertextuality. In its text and illustrations, John Ronald’s Dragons contains numerous allusions to well known epic fantasy texts, including The Hobbit and Beowulf. Challenge older readers who may already be familiar with these texts to find and explain these allusions, and then consider why Caroline McAlister and Eliza Wheeler included them and how they enhance the story with more layers of meaning.
- Illustrations and Research. Picture book illustrators undergo various processes in order to create their artwork; rarely do they simply read a text and create what immediately comes to mind. Share with students the Picture Book Builders blog entry in which Eliza Wheeler describes the research process she undertook to construct her illustrations for John Ronald’s Dragons. What about her process surprises them? What is similar to the way other picture book illustrators create their artwork? Have students read the websites, blog entries, and interviews by other illustrators, such as Melissa Sweet, Jon Klassen, and E. B. Lewis, to research their artistic styles and processes. Invite students to emulate the processes of one of these illustrators and create illustrations for one of their own pieces of writing.
Caroline McAlister’s website
Eliza Wheeler’s website
The Tolkien Society
Article – J. R. R. Tolkien’s Guide to Inventing a Fantasy Language
Articles about the role of fantasy in children’s lives and children’s literature
- The Real Purpose of Fantasy –https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/apr/23/bridgingthegapswhyweneed
- The Real Reason Children Love Fantasy http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2005/12/the_real_reason_children_love_fantasy.html
- Winnie the Pooh: Examining the Value of Fantasy in Children’s Literature http://www.huffingtonpost.com/meryl-koh/winnie-the-pooh-fantasy_b_1920136.html
- Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/why-the-british-tell-better-childrens-stories/422859/
Ellis, C. (2016). Du iz tak? Candlewick Press.
Ende, M. (1979/1983). The neverending story. Trans. by R. Manheim. Doubleday.
Hanson, F. (2015). The wonder. Templar Books.
Niemark, A. E. (2012). Mythmaker: The life of J.R.R. Tolkien creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Harcourt Children’s Books.
O’Byrne, N. (2015). Use your imagination. Nosy Crow.
Pollack, P. (2015). Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Grosset & Dunlap.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937). The Hobbit, or There and back again. George Allen & Unwin.
Wallner, A. (2009). J. R. R. Tolkien. Ill. by J. C. Wallner. Holiday House.
Yamada, K. (2014). What do you do with an idea? Ill. by M. Besom. Compendium.