Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon

My boyfriend introduced me to How To Train Your Dragon, the animated fantasy film, and I loved it. We then watched the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (creative) and I loved it more. We’ve re-watched them several times. I didn’t even know there were books. So, at his suggestion, I read How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Hmm.

Spoiler Warning: There will be some.

How To Train Your Dragon is the first in a series of twelve children’s books about Hiccup, the son of a Viking chief, as he overcomes great obstacles on his journey to become Heroic.

Visually, it’s a nice little book. It has childlike My Image [How To Train Your Dragon Book] handwriting and drawings throughout, so it’s perfect for Cowell’s target audience; the idea is that the book was genuinely  written by Hiccup – hence his illustrations and annotations – and she was just his Old Norse translator. A nice touch.

The descriptions are as vivid and not complicated – as you’d expect in a children’s book, and there are also some witty moments.

The key plot points are clearly identifiable:

  • Hiccup is a below average Viking boy who wants to achieve but struggles under the pressure of being the Chief’s son
  • Snoutlout is Hiccup’s cousin, eager for Hiccup to fail so he can become chief instead
  • Hiccup is concerned about not fulfilling his father’s Viking expectations
  • It is only when Berk is placed in danger, Hiccup’s usefulness and value is recognised

These are (no surprises here) “obvious” for an adult reader, but this the sort of good narrative structure a children’s book should have, so I wanted to point it out.

However, it is very different to the films. An enlightening comment, I know.

The characters are different – without seeing them frequently “onscreen” like you would in a film, I felt forced to rely on a few, infrequent small illustrations and their initial descriptions at the start of the book to remember who they are; it was hard to keep track of the long-winded Viking names.

My Image [How To Train Your Dragon 1]

Another striking difference between the book and the film is that in the film, Berk is an island scared of, and enraged by, dragons because they believe they are violent creatures that need to be destroyed. The community is only persuaded to think otherwise following Hiccup’s discovery of, and his blossoming friendship with, Toothless the Night Fury, one of the most legendary and fearful dragons in existence. However, in the book, Berk is an island that already believes that dragons can be, and should be, domesticated pets. It is only once the Viking boys in training are given the useless handbook How To Train Your Dragon, Hiccup must create his own, personalised, methods to tame his dragon Toothless.

 A second significant difference is that in the book, the dragons can talk. This creates a new layer of characterisation because they can communicate thoughts and feelings with each other, and their owners. This means that, instead of the smiling but silent Toothless from the film, he is whiny and always back-chatting. It’s very difficult to see him as the loveable, heart-warming, protective but powerful and incredibly rare Night Fury from the film – the Toothless I love.

I’m so clearly biased – sorry – and I preferred the films to the book. I can see exactly why kids would love this sort of book though: it’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s easy to read and it’s imaginative.

I won’t read the rest of the series, but at least I now have a flavour of the writing which inspired two films I greatly enjoy.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is in production and is due to be released in 2019.

– Judith

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Book Review: Coot Club

Coot Club is the fifth novel in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. There are 12 books in the series in total.

The book is about Dick and Dorothea, who visit the Norfolk Broads during the Easter holidays, keen to learn how to sail. They meet a new group of friends – members of the eponymous Coot Club – and explore the North and South Broads together.

The start of Coot Club was bonkers but fun. Likewise, the ending was funny and enjoyable. However, the parts in between were not as entertaining.

Lots of new characters are introduced – too many, I think – as well as the names of the boats they each sail. This made it incredibly difficult to remember who was who and which boat was which. These new characters didn’t seem to be developed in any detail – excluding Tom, who was suitably independently-minded and witty and William the pug, who was arguably the most characterised of the entire cast.

Furthermore, Port and Starboard, the girl twins with an aptitude for sailing – hence the nicknames – felt like a weaker version of Nancy and Peggy from the previous books.

I think part of my issue with Coot Club was having only just become acclimatised to the “original” characters (John, Susan, Titty, Roger, Nancy, Peggy, Dick and Dorothea) and the original Lake District setting, Ransome introduces new characters, in a new setting, with a new story. And they say people don’t like change…

Given the title, Coot Club not only involves a lot of sailing but bird-watching too – especially of coots.  I liked the variety of birds identified and described by Dick; I’m trying to spot and remember types of British birds myself at the minute and this reinforced some in my memory.

My Photo [Coot Club 2]
‘Coots can be found in large numbers, along numerous waterways up and down the country’. Image via Canal River Trust

Coot Club took me a lot longer to enjoy, and it eventually became a struggle to read. This is such a shame because I’ve enjoyed reading the series so far. Oh well, I can’t have everything.

– Judith

Book Review: Winter Holiday

Winter Holiday is the fourth novel in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome*.

*The third book, Peter Duck, is one of the metafictional books of the series because it is a story created by the children and narrated from their perspective. As it’s metafiction, and doesn’t affect the overall narrative, I haven’t read it yet.

‘“We started a Polar expedition.”’

In Winter Holiday, John, Susan, Titty and Roger return to the Lake District during the Christmas holiday period. They make new friends: Dick, a keen astronomer, and his sister Dorothea, a keen author. The usual summery landscapes have been transformed into a sparkling white, icy wonderland. The Swallows and Amazons unite with Dick and Dorothea to embark on a Polar Adventure.

‘“The idea was that as soon as we could we’d go to the North Pole over the ice.”’

Winter Holiday is instantly different to the other books in the series. Although the book is set in a familiar setting, Ransome’s stunning descriptions really do transform the landscape:

‘Dorothea saw the white snow deep across the sill. She leapt out of bed and ran to the window. There was a new world. Everything was white, and somehow still. Everything was holding its breath. The field stretching down to the lake was like a brilliant white counterpane without a crinkle in it.’

‘The snow seemed to have spread downwards from the tops of the hills until everything was covered. It lay like a slab of icing on a slice of cake long the stone wall on the garden.’

‘And then there was this magical brightness in the air.’

Activities such as ice-skating and rescuing a “polar bear” (sheep) strongly contrast with the children’s summer holiday adventures, and setting this against a crisp and snowy backdrop make it feel like an exciting new location to explore.

The original characters are built upon and new characters are introduced, expanding the friendship group.

Roger is his usual mischievous self, trying to wrangle extra chocolate rations or drench himself in snow, Titty’s budding friendship with Dorothea was lovely to see, and I liked the introduction of Dick and Dorothea. Dorothea was keen to write up a story of their adventures, and Dick was keen to learn signalling and sailing from the others.

Also, I felt the pace of Winter Holiday took longer to advance than perhaps the other books did. I was keen for the children to start their adventures and begin the “polar expedition” but this didn’t happen until towards the very end, which was a shame.

Having said that, the ending was enjoyable; the threat of unstable ice, snowstorms and extreme conditions was a reminder that sometimes, the children’s recklessness has dangerous consequences, reminding me that they are, after all, still children.

Overall, I did like reading Winter Holiday – given its winter themes, it’s the perfect book to read around the Christmas break – and I especially look forward to seeing more of Dorothea’s character in the series.

– Judith