30 July 2006

Between the lines of George and the Dragon

Chris Wormell's picture book George and the Dragon was published in the UK in 2002, but arrived in the US only this year. I don't know how it would stand up to many, many rereadings night after night. It's basically a one-joke story (well, a joke and a half). But it's certainly worth a first and second look because it's gorgeous. The dragon is a magnificent, fiery red beast, huge and fierce with expressive eyes and ears.

George and the Dragon is almost a primer in how picture book action can move from spread to spread. The whiffs of smoke on a Himalayan landscape (1) turn out to be the dragon (2), who then launches himself into the air (3). Next we see four spreads of the dragon attacking a castle, each showing consequences of the last spread's action. All of these images are from the same basic angle, but because Wormell varies his scale--and because of that awesome dragon--these visuals don't get boring.

In the middle of the book, the focus shifts to George. This is not Saint George, the armored dragon-hunter of English mythology and E. Nesbit's "Deliverers of Their Country". (The knights sprawling across one page spread have St. George's cross on their shields, though, as if they were English football fans.) George is a mouse. The book's layout emphasizes his small size, first by putting him alone on wide page spreads, then by shrinking the size of the illustrations focused on him. The mighty dragon's art bleeds off three sides of the page; George's is eventually crowded top and bottom by text. But then George goes to see the dragon, and the order is upended.

Wormell (a fine name for writing about dragons, but he must hear that all the time) situates most of his jokes quietly in the gap between text and art. The typical kidnapped princess, for instance, is never mentioned in words, though she appears on about half the spreads. Indeed, humans are mentioned only in passing (the dragon "could brush away an army" with his wing). That lovely extra half-joke on page 21 also pops up from the mix of text and art.

It would be hard for a writer to convey those things in a manuscript: "Here I want the artist to draw the dragon carrying off a princess, even though my text will never mention a princess." Indeed, the book's story contains some logical sticking-points. (What's the source of the dragon's fear? Why has George bought such an inconvenient home?) But with the giant red dragon slithering across the pages in front of our eyes, who has time for such quibbles?

1 comment:

fusenumber8 said...

This book was brought to my attention recently by a fellow librarian who was pretty much gushing over the entire presentation. If she is any indication, the book will certainly receive the attention it deserves.