Douglas Florian is the talented and acclaimed author and illustrator of over 30 children’s books, the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, a painter in the field of Fine Arts for Grown-Ups (I just made up that profession)—in fact, he calls his fine art pieces “abstract regressionist. They are old but behave like little children”—and one of my favorite poets (for children or otherwise).
Back in April he released a superb new picture book I realized I haven’t written about yet. If I can do my part today to encourage you to find a copy for yourself and the children in your life, well then…I will have done a good deed this week.
It’s called How to Draw a Dragon, but it’s hardly a step-by-step, paint-by-numbers guide. (Florian fans know to expect more.) The opening endpages might make you wonder, though: They display the “Parts of a Dragon”—eyes, teeth, scales, etc.— but it turns out that on each spread, readers see a different child. Each child has lured a dragon into the front yard for drawing. “Drawing dragons isn’t hard. Drag a dragon to your yard,” the first page says. Here, a young boy is pulling a massive creature on a tiny red wagon. On the second spread, another child has convinced a huge dragon to curl up in his back yard, while he grabs all his art supplies (and many of them, since dragons are “large in size”).
Each spread is a feast for one’s eyes, bursting with color. We watch the children’s imaginations bloom as they stare in wonder at the dragons and draw what they see. There’s a great sense of adventure pervading the book; in one spread, a dragon flies, while the young artist clings to his (or her—Florian brings readers both he and she dragons) left wing: “Draw your dragon’s wings in flight, but don’t look down—and hold on tight!” In another, a child toasts marshmallows while the bright-orange creature breathes fire. I also love the sense of delicious menace that is hinted at throughout the book. Dragons have claws after all (“Careful when you draw each claw”), and they must be soothed with a song before you draw their “teeth so long.” (Also, a dragon’s sneeze means you get rained on. Who knew?)
Florian uses mixed-media collages in very busy spreads—but his illustrations never manage to crowd the space too much. His sense of composition is spot-on. His mixed-media art is always good for poring over, a true delight for readers’ eyes—full of detail, textures, and playful patterns and humor. But what is most remarkable in this book is that the illustrations are made to look as if children have created them. Now, any time an illustrator sets out to do this—to emulate the drawings of children and/or their handwriting—it’s a risky thing. It’s not always done well. Sometimes, illustrators err on the side of Altogether Too Cloying or Cutesy. But not Florian. As the official Kirkus review points out, they may evoke children’s own collages, but they are never made to appear too simplistic or doe-eyed. They are “quite sophisticated in their use of texture, photo and fabric, as well as matte and transparent color,” notes the reviewer.
In other words, Florian makes the complex look effortless here.
The book ends in an exuberant gatefold, showing a school art gallery; all the children’s dragon drawings are on display, and they proudly show them off to the adults in their lives.
It all adds up to a book that celebrates imagination and art-making with great joy. And if you’re inspired to set off and create your own dragon, you can thank Florian.
[Please note: The type in the spread pictured here differs from the type in the final version of the book.]
HOW TO DRAW A DRAGON. Copyright © 2015 by Douglas Florian. Published by Beach Lane Books, New York. Spread here reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.