By Molly Haig, AmeriCorps Member Serving on the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Team with the Hennigan School
When was the last time you took advice from a talking cat, outwitted crocodiles or flew on a dragon? If you’re like me, it’s been a while. Daily life can be tragically devoid of chatty cats and dragon rides, but it does not have to be.
I would love to share Ruth Stiles Gannet’s My Father’s Dragon with my students. I want them to be strong, imaginative readers. With that in mind, My Father’s Dragon will appeal to their sense of adventure, stretch their imagination, and subtly inspire them to think about wordplay and story structure.
I hope my students learn to love reading. My Father’s Dragon is easy to love because it invites us in. It has a familiar access point: a kid with big dreams who feels misunderstood at home. But it turns into a wild adventure when a cat responds: “if you'd really like to fly that much, I think I know of a sort of a way you might get to fly while you're still a little boy." The boy, Elmer Elevator, doesn’t delay.
He packs his knapsack with “chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a tooth brush and a tube of tooth paste” and more. The next day, he stows away on a ship, and soon he finds himself on Wild Island, from which, it is rumored, no explorer has returned alive.
Elmer’s first encounter on the island is a startled mouse who hurries off, muttering "I must smell tumduddy. I mean, I must tell somebody.” Thanks to the mouse, when I read My Father’s Dragon in my elementary school, my friends and I began substituting “nee meither!” for “me neither,” and “bum cack!” for “come back.” Rhyming helps young students notice the connection between how a word sounds and how it is written. In this case, students may notice that switching a couple letters makes a similar (sillier) rhyming phrase.
Although Elmer’s first encounter seems mild, Wild Island soon lives up to its name. But with the prospect of flying home on a dragon, Elmer ventures on, using the contents of his knapsack to outwit wild animals. He leaves tigers chewing gum instead of flesh, and a once-distraught rhinoceros contentedly tooth-brushing his tusk. He creates a crocodile bridge by politely asking the crocs to line up head-to-tail, and attaching a lollipop to each tail for the next croc to taste.
Familiar things in unfamiliar situations (like crocodiles with lollipops, or a rhino with a toothbrush) create vivid images—familiar enough to visualize, but strange enough to stretch the imagination. If my students picture what they read, they will be more likely to understand and enjoy it. My Father’s Dragon hands them an experience bursting with memorable images. Experiencing a text in this way will help them “see” what reading can be.
As the book’s title suggests, throughout the adventure, the narrator calls Elmer “my father.” This puzzled me as a child. “Who’s telling this story now?” I wondered. “What is Elmer like as a dad?” Just as the mouse prompted me to experiment with rhyme, calling Elmer “my father” prompted me to think about the idea of a story-within-a-story long before I knew what “frame narrative” meant.
Of course when I read My Father’s Dragon in elementary school, I didn’t think too hard about why I loved it. I assumed that I read it over and over because the story was exciting. Of course, that was true. But looking back at the book, I notice the literary elements seamlessly integrated into the adventure, and this makes me even more eager to share Elmer and his dragon with my students.