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Sunday, 28 May 2017

King Jack and the Dragon

Author: Peter Bently
Illustrator: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: Puffin Books, 2011

Here's a fun, spirit rousing book depicting the power of children's imaginations. My daughter (nearly 4) asked for this book in the week as 'the book about fighting dragons all day long and then thinking you'd like to fight them some more', which I thought was a pretty accurate description of the whole narrative. 
Here we have 'King Jack', his friends, and what seems to be his baby brother, playing out in a makeshift fort in the garden, made from 'a big cardboard box, an old sheet and somesticks, a couple of bin bags, a few broken bricks.' We love this, it's very playful, very everyday, and to a child, very real, tangible. Helen Oxenbury does a lovely job with the illustrations, pen and ink in simple black and white, and then pen and watercolour, roughly one drawing per line. My children have enjoyed this book from about 2 years old onwards, and I think this is because of the high ration of picture to line, it's punchy, easy to read aloud, and leads in to the excitement straight away.  

The little boy in the book, Jack, is leading his troops into battle, defending his castle from 'dragon attack'. The depiction of the dragons and beasts is very fantastical, echoing this theme of the story being a lift from Jack's imagination. The 'creature' pictures certainly have lots of detail ( smoking nostrils, scales, dangly tongues), but might be slightly scary for very young children; they're reminiscent of those in Where The Wild Things are, and of course Oxenbury's own earlier, dream-like creatures in Edward Lear's The Quangle Wangle's Hat

With his wooden sword and fists punching the air, the gung-ho adventure culminates in the beasts being chased away by the band of boys, but then there's a really nice, endearing twist in the story where the adults start intervening in the days activities, bringing the playtime to a close. Jack can't except that his lovely day outside is over, so sees that brave knight 'Sir  Zak' has been taken away by a giant (his friend Zak appears to be collected by his dad), then Baby Caspar (his brother) is taken off to bed. Determined to stick it out, despite his growing fears as the garden gets dark, Jack holds fast in his box-fort, until he gets a fright of his own from a 'thing with four feet.' As the shadow lifts and his parents are revealed, reader and character share the same sense of relief. The story ends beautifully with Jack very much a 'boy' being carried in his dads shoulders, and the finale illustration of Jack happily asleep in bed with knight's sword still in hand. 
The book paints this really comforting story of safe imaginative play, content days, childhood fun, friendship, brotherhood and days out in the garden. The soft greens in the book almost smell like summer, and Oxenbury's characteristic close knit hatching make the pictures feel intimate, deep in  perspective, and warm and rich on the eyes. 
A lovely enchanting story that sums up happy childhood and adventure play, all cleverly recalled by Bentley through a child's perspective. 

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