The magic of talking to children about dragons, by Liz Flanagan

Published on: 03 May 2020

Dragon Daughter and Rise of the Shadow Dragons author Liz Flanagan loves speaking to children about dragons. She tells us why - and explains how they can bring us all a bit of magic at a difficult time.

Liz Flanagan and the front cover of Rise of the Shadow Dragons

One of the best things to result from writing a children's book series about dragons is talking to children about dragons.

I probably should have seen that coming, but it has been a most unexpected joy over the last two years. It's one that I'm missing right now as schools are closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, but if you have five minutes to grab a cup of tea and a blog post, I'd love to tell you about some of my recent chats with kids about dragons.

In school assemblies and writing workshops, children have very clear, vivid and wide-ranging information about dragons - I think I must have been the same at that age, because when I try to remember first learning about dragons, I can't do it. I still have a very old and dog-eared picture book called Stories of William the Dragon by Polly Donnison, published in 1972, with an inscription in my Mum's handwriting saying it's a gift to me from my big brother. So perhaps dragons have actually been there all my life.

I often have to amend my talk and slides because I'm always learning from children, and from their teachers, too. In my  quiz, I've got a question about Komodo dragons, and I could probably write a whole other post using new facts given to me by child experts on the subject. And when I ask what dragons look like and why we love them, the answers are vivid, earnest and beautiful, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

Children know too how global, how ancient, and how varied dragon mythology is, and they confidently tell me about Japanese dragons, Welsh dragons, Viking dragons and more. We talk about how dragons can be dangerous and fierce, or vulnerable or kind.

And we share our favourite dragons in books and films, from Tolkien's Smaug to Cressida Cowell's Toothless. They've often read Andy Shepherd's The Boy Who Grew Dragons and we giggle over the dragons' incendiary poos; or they tell me about Cornelia Funke's Dragon Rider and Christopher Paolini's Eragon, or describe the fierceness of JK Rowling's Hungarian Horntail.

Where dragon inspiration comes from

I know that the dragons in Dragon Daughter and Rise of the Shadow Dragons are a breed descended from all the fictional dragons I've ever read, so I owe a great debt to the imaginations of Ursula K LeGuin and Anne McCaffrey in particular. But when children ask where my ideas come from, I have to admit my dragons are also inspired by animals much closer to home.

So I tell them that when I was eight years old, I was very ill with glandular fever and had weeks and weeks off school. When I was finally better, my parents gave me the puppy I'd been asking for since I could speak, and in a childhood where I had to jostle with my brothers over most things, this dog was mine, just mine.

That scruffy border collie gave me unquestioning adoration, constant company, confidence and independence: I was allowed to roam alone in the woods if she was with me. I ask if they can see the echoes of that experience in my story about dragons who bring freedom and change. And someone usually nods. (Recently, one sweet girl asked me if that dog was still alive. I had to break it to her gently.)

And then I might tell them that Dragon Daughter has been called a Cinderella story with dragons, and Milla's life is transformed by being chosen by Iggie. At first he's small and vulnerable, reliant on her for love, protection and food - like any baby animal - but soon he is vast, powerful and capable of flight and fire. Milla also becomes a person of power and potential because of her bond to Iggie.

To whet their appetites for the new book, Rise of the Shadow Dragons, I describe how its protagonist, Joe, has a contrasting arc: he starts his story over-confident, privileged and expecting a dragon to choose him. When this doesn't happen, he is disgraced and self-exiled because of his actions. His is a slow journey to redemption. He has to earn his place and his dragon a much harder way.

The freedom that dragons bring

I tell children that one of my favourite scenes to write in both books was the first flight for Milla and Iggie in Dragon Daughter, and Joe and Ren in Rise of the Shadow Dragons. Though it comes at very different points in the stories, it's a pivotal and transformative moment, where each protagonist embraces their place, their power and their freedom.

Like a fledgling leaving the nest, risking the unknown, risking the fall, the dragonrider chooses to fly and see what they are capable of. I loved imagining what that might feel like, the physicality of it, the coldness of the air, the shock of seeing the world drop away.

Right at the end of my assembly talk, I get children to 'speak dragon' and roar like the most dangerous dragon of all: the mother dragon who is brooding her clutch of eggs. (At this point, I've usually explained another connection to real-life animals here: how I first got this idea from watching my own flock of hens, surprised by the dedication, self-sacrifice and fiercely protective behaviour exhibited by my little white hen Candyfloss, who would growl and peck me if I tried to check her eggs.) It bowls me over every time to hear a whole school hall roar like dragons at the top of their lungs!

Right now, I'm feeling so grateful to all the teachers, librarians and others who organised all those school visits for me over the last two years. I was lucky to have these conversations with children about dragons, and I love that I have these memories to share with you now.

Like many people, I'm currently in quarantine during the coronavirus crisis, and I can't even leave the house. Dragons might represent power and freedom, as we talked about, but those are exactly the things that feel quite distant just now. So for now, I'll be patient and wait for things to change, feeling very grateful to all those keyworkers out there.

Meanwhile, research has shown that when we are reading, the same parts of our brains light up as if we were actually doing the activity in question. So perhaps the closest thing we can get to riding a dragon is reading about riding a dragon. 

We might be stuck inside right now, but with access to more wonderful dragon books than ever before, we can still embark on fantastic journeys to anywhere we choose, in the company of wise and loyal dragons. So I'll be over here with a pile of dragon books, taking notes for my next chat with kids about dragons.

Dragon Daughter and Rise of the Shadow Dragons are published by David Fickling Books.

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