Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon - review

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon
It's possible that my opinion of this book has been influenced by the appearance in my bed this morning (at, possibly, 7am, I don't know, I didn't have my glasses on yet), of a seven-year-old who wasn't interested in it when I suggested it to him yesterday at the library, but who had apparently woken up, read the whole book, and now needed to synopsize it for me, read the funniest passages out loud, and tell me that he needs the next book in the series RIGHT NOW. He could barely get the words out for laughing.

After we kicked him out (my saintly husband: "Let Mommy sleep, ok? Go read something else."), I fell back to sleep and dreamed about pudgy animated dragon pirates. Ursula Vernon, get your agent on the phone with Noggin. Danny Dragonbreath is good animated.

So. Danny Dragonbreath is the only semi-mythological creature in a school full of non-mythic reptiles and amphibians. He gets a little picked-on for this, but his is an upbeat, enthusiastic semi-mythological 5th-grade spirit, and he doesn't let that bully Big Eddy the Komodo dragon get him down. His best friend Wendell is (predictably) a more cautious, intellectual type, and in the way of mismatched best friend pairs everywhere, Danny has to cajole Wendell into assisting him in his pursuit of unorthodox solutions to common problems.

In this instance, the problem is a research paper on the ocean, a subject that Danny knows nothing about. Danny's solution? A visit to Cousin Edward the sea serpent, who takes the gung-ho Danny and freaked-out Wendell on an undersea tour. They explore a coral reef, a sunken ship, and a deep-sea trench. Along the way, sneaky Ursula Vernon finagles interesting facts about sea creatures and ocean phenomena into the adventure.

But it's the snarkalicious writing that will keep my seven-year-old, and other kids who appreciate funny (I'm thinking it might appeal to Diary of a Wimpy Kid devotees, if I can get them past the dragon thing) coming back for more. In a sidebar, Vernon writes, "A school of potato salad can skeletonize a cow in under two weeks, assuming that the cow doesn't get bored and move."

Our library system has Dragonbreath filed as a graphic novel, but it's not. It's one of those hybrids, something like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with pages of panels carrying the action in some places and pages of text doing the bulk of the work. There could be more graphic passages, I have to say. Ursula Vernon's drawing style is extremely nice - full-on grownup quality work, with a strong line quality and bold shading that highlights each panel's central idea. Think Owly.

Such high contrast sometimes makes a comic look ominous and bleak (Dark Knight Returns, Grendel), but in this case, the choice of grass green as a highlight color keeps that from happening, and it's a technique that is particularly appropriate and effective in the undersea scenes. The vertical panels that show the sinuous Edward diving or rising to the surface are unusually lovely. Page layouts are varied and interesting, but still quite simple and easy to follow.

In sum: . I've been looking for a Babymouse for boys for a long time, and I think Dragonbreath is it - snappy, giggleworthy text and strong, coherent graphic passages telling a fun, friendly, exciting story with just the right balance of realism and fantasy. I'm with Mao - we're waiting for Dragonbreath: Attack of the Ninja Frogs with bated breath!

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