Saturday morning I took my kids to the library. My daughter insisted on finding a picture book "bout dragons," so I went to the catalog computer, and once I had narrowed the search to that particular branch of the library and its kids' collection, I found this gem: John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Caroline McAlister with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler.
John Ronald's Dragons is a children's picture book biography of the first half of Tolkien's life, and it's wonderful. The story follows young John Ronald from his youth in the Midlands to school, his move after his mother's death when he was twelve, his meeting and courtship of Edith, his experience in World War I, and finally his professorship at Oxford where, one day while grading exams, he came across a blank sheet of paper and scribbled "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The theme throughout is Tolkien's love of dragons, and the illustrations bring out the inspirations for his dragons in his everyday landscape.
The story is well told and a good jumping off point for your kids. I'm a bit of a nerd about Tolkien and his life, and so I would have liked more detail on, for instance, his remarkable courtship of Edith (when his guardian worried that she would interfere with his studies and forbade him to see her until he was twenty-one, Tolkien obeyed; he sent her a proposal the day of his twenty-first birthday), but this is a succinct and warm retelling that kids will enjoy. My daughter certainly does. We've read it five or six times in two days.
The illustrations are beautiful—far and away the best feature, and the best I've seen in a picture book in quite a while. The pictures include many real places, especially Oxford locations like the Hertford Bridge and the Eagle and Child, with a cameo by C.S. Lewis. Illustrator's notes at the end of the book point out some nice details tucked away in some of the pictures: a fountain pen that Edith gave John Ronald for his birthday, a copy of Beowulf hidden in his study, distinctly hobbit-like neighbors from Tolkien's childhood in the background of a landscape scene.
Perhaps my favorite—or at least the most evocative, to me—shows Tolkien huddled in a trench, hard at work on Quenya, as tanks breathe fire in a treeless no-man's-land above.
The climax of the book is a trip through two-page landscapes from The Hobbit, in which John Ronald follows Bilbo and a troupe of dwarves through the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and across the Long Lake to find "his dragon," a lavishly illustrated Smaug hulking above a mountain of gold. Sharp eyes will note a golden cup and the Arkenstone among the pile of treasure.
As a geek bonus, the end matter includes a list of dragons from Tolkien's work, including Glaurung, Smaug, and the underappreciated Chrysophylax, and quotations from several of his essays and lectures on dragons. Good stuff.
John Ronald's Dragons is a beautiful picture book and I highly recommend it. It's a double treat in that I can read my daughter a book about one of my favorite authors and both of us enjoy it.
Visit the publisher's page for some full-page samples of the gorgeous illustrations.