Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Home and Hearth: The Many Ways of Being a Hobbit. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.
Goodreads: John Ronald’s Dragons
Published: March 2017
A picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien that spans his childhood to his writing of The Hobbit.
I suspect that this is the type of book that receives rave reviews, not because it is really that good, but because it is about J. R. R. Tolkien. Any fan who reads it wants to like it. After all, it promises to introduce younger readers to Tolkien–and who would not want that? However, I admit myself not impressed with this picture book. The biography is sparse and wastes a good amount of the word count on making parallels the illustrators should make. The illustrations are nice, but not original, striking, or memorable.
If were not already familiar with Tolkien’s biography, I wonder how much information I would have gleaned from this picture book. It reads as very sparse and as a little piecemeal. It begins with Tolkien loving words and animals as a child, but does not mention important details like the fact that he was born in South Africa or that he moved to England after his father died. Then it seems to jump around, with no indications at any point about how old Tolkien is. Thus, he suddenly moves from reading to school to being in a boarding house and falling in love to going to a war that the author would have readers believe sprung from nowhere. Then he is teaching at Oxford and, finally, “following” Bilbo Baggins through Mirkwood and over the Lonely Mountains. There the story ends.
Now, I understand that a limited word count leads little room for much detail, but I still think the transitions could have been smoother. Nothing Tolkien’s age would have been useful, as would have giving the name of the war Tolkien fought in, mentioning his marriage instead of letting readers assume it, and telling readers what Tolkien actually studied in school (he seems to get a job at Oxford out of nowhere). These parts of his life need to read as connected. The depiction of the writing of The Hobbit also, to my mind, is too vague and assumes that readers already know that it is a book Tolkien wrote. The text does not explicitly say that Tolkien wrote a book, any book. It simply says he “followed” Bilbo and then gives place names that have meaning only if readers have already read The Hobbit. Then it suddenly cuts short with an odd line that seems to imply that Smaug is still living but probably means metaphorically through Tolkien’s books. I suspect younger readers will find this line confusing since it is difficult to read into it a metaphor about books that the biography does not bother to mention exist.
A good deal of more useful information could have made it into the book had the author not wasted a fair chunk of her word count in describing the parallels between Tolkien’s imagination and his surroundings: he dreams of dragon smoke, but just sees smoke on his oatmeal; he thinks of dragon scales, but listens to Edith practice scales; and so forth. These connections are ones the author should trust the illustrator to make; they read as heavy-handed in the actual text and do not contribute much to our understanding of Tolkien’s life. The author seems to realize that the text is lacking because she provides a page-length biography at the very end that actually gives us details such as Tolkien’s birth place and so forth.
The illustrations themselves are nice, but that is the only word I can think to describe them. They are not original or daring or striking. In fact, they read to me as fairly safe because they are so straight-forward. In a book about the imagination, I would hope for more from the illustrations. I also find they are too pale and pastel for my taste. I want bold colors to go with a book about dragons.
Tolkien fans will probably buy this book and enjoy it since it is about a beloved author. I have difficulty seeing it being really meaningful to other audiences, however. It seems to assume background knowledge about Tolkien, and so it not much use as a biography. As simply a story, I find it unmemorable.