Leaving Dragon Island

Dragon Island has taken a long time to surface – not in the writing, but in the discovering. In the late nineties I was challenged to create a children’s picture book that confronted the issue of violence. That challenge has been nibbling away at my conscience like a quietly insistent Jiminy Cricket.

It was a simple enough challenge, delivered in soft innocence by an earnest young teacher at a primary school in an affluent part of East Auckland. I was visiting the school as part of the New Zealand ‘Writers In Schools’ program, a wonderful scheme where the government sponsors writers to work with schools to encourage a joy in reading and to celebrate the craft of writing and illustrating.

In these visits I have always tried to do a series of workshops tailored to the different age groups. So everything from simply reading my books to new entrant classes through to craft based sessions for gifted young writers.

If the school had special needs students I would follow the staff’s instincts as to which sessions were appropriate for each student. It was at one such workshop that I met a delightful young girl who was clearly bright and engaged but unable to articulate her ideas or to focus for more than brief periods. It was distressing to learn that she had been perfectly healthy in every way until her father had lost his temper one day and battered her so severely it left her with serious brain damage.

The teacher pointed out that in her experience most schools had a few children who were the victims of violence in the home, and many more who were the victims of bullying. She then pointed at the shelves around her, and announced that there were no picture books she could use in class as a tool for a safe, child centric discussion around the issue. Could I please think about writing one.

So now, more than twenty years later, here it is. I am not an authority on the issue, I make no claim other than being a story teller who wants to engage, entertain and hopefully even enlighten and inspire young readers.

Dragon island is a simple tale, but I hope it can be more than that to those who have need of it.

The issue:

Children are surrounded by violence. It comes through the TV screen, through the car window and sadly for some, it comes into the playground and through the front door of their home.  How do they understand this in their terms, how do they develop tools for recognising it, for speaking out, and for walking away? Dragon Island is a simple story that builds a landscape for those tools. At one level it is a child centred picture book about courage. At another it is a flag the young reader can wave if they too live on Dragon Island.

Behind the book:

Dragon Island is a picture book about VIOLENCE. A picture book for very young children about VIOLENCE!! It has taken the author twenty years to write, twenty years to find exactly the right words, exactly the right allegory for telling a tale about violence that is warm, uplifting and life affirming.  This book is one writer’s attempt to tackle this very difficult subject in a manner that is appropriate for young children. Welcome to Dragon Island. 

The story:

Make Not Break, that’s the motto of a small blue dragon called Norman. But Norman lives on Dragon Island where all the other dragons want to break things.  They like to bash and bruise and break and burn. What can one small dragon do to make his island a more peaceful place to live, a place where making is better than breaking?

The central message:

It takes courage to follow your own path. It takes courage to be true to yourself when everyone around you behaves differently, behaves badly, behaves violently. Dragon Island is a simple picture book that speaks directly to young readers about saying no to violence.

The book as a teacher parent resource:

The story has several key elements that are explicitly depicted as clear story beats:

  1. Our hero Norman loves to creative when everyone around him enjoys destruction.
  2. Norman doesn’t join in when the other dragons have their daily fights all around him.
  3. He tries to argue for peace – ‘Make Not Break’ is his motto.
  4. He tries to make his own environment a little safer.  
  5. He doesn’t give up when nobody listens to him. 
  6. He doesn’t give in to peer pressure and intimidation.
  7. He tries to lead by example.
  8. He shows by example that being creative can bring greater rewards than being destructive.
  9. By his actions he encourages one other dragon to listen and understand and change their ways.
  10. While you can’t hope to change the world (or pretend to children that they can) you can bring about small changes in others and find friends who share your values.
  11. Norman and his new friend, the one who listens and understands, leave Dragon Island. They chose to leave violence behind them, to walk away.
notes cover copy