The story of a boy who dreamed of dragons and found a way to bring them to life.
Tolkien grows from dapper lad to dapper young man in Wheeler’s cleanly drawn scenes as, tucked into views of carefully rendered buildings and landscapes (the illustrator appends lengthy notes), glimpses of scaly figures from treasured old tales or new fancies join evocative curls of smoke and architectural details to hint at the constant presence of dragons in his imagination. An account of his halcyon early days describes his loving mother and good friends and, critically, playing at making up his own language with his cousin. McAlister then tersely carries him through his subsequent unhappy youth, wartime, marriage, and academic career on into Middle Earth and The Hobbit—where at last, deep under the Lonely Mountain, “John Ronald found his dragon.” Two portraits of Smaug rearing up in red and golden splendor cap the narrative. A long authorial note plus a catalog of dragons from Tolkien’s novels, quotes from his essays, and a bibliography will well serve readers looking for more about the man’s life and outlook. It’s better written than Alexandra Wallner’s 2011 profile, though as a general gateway to Tolkien’s realms, the focus on his dragons makes it not so broad.
Since the likeliest audience for this is kids who have seen the Hobbit films, it’s a good reminder that the book came first. (afterword, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 7-10)