Adventure in the Jungle: A Review of ‘My Father’s Dragon’

“When one is convinced that his cause is just, he will fear nothing.”–St.  John Bosco

Reading Level:

Grades 2-3

Review and Thoughts:

A boy + an alley cat + tigers + a rhinoceros + a lion + a gorilla + crocodiles + a dragon = ADVENTURE!

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett is an exciting adventure story about Elmer Elevator’s quest to free a dragon from captivity, narrated by his son. Elmer faces many dangerous situations along the way with steadfast determination and courage.  The reader experiences the suspense of Elmer’s perilous encounters with anticipation and then his relief as he diffuses each crisis.

The adventure begins unexpectedly when Elmer finds an old alley cat. This seems like a pretty ordinary event in a boy’s life.  What is not so ordinary is that the boy and cat are able to converse and develop a special rapport.   There is big problem when Elmer brings the cat home however because his mom hates cats.  She refuses to feed it and orders Elmer to get rid of it.  After his mother finds out Elmer secretly continues to feed the cat, she actually throws the cat out of the house.  That is not the end of this relationship however because Elmer searches for and finds the cat.  During one of their conversations, Elmer confides that he dreams of having an airplane some day and flying anywhere he wants to go. The cat surprises Elmer when she tells him he may not have to wait that long and may be able to “sort of fly” while he’s still a boy.  This is an intriguing idea for Elmer!

This is Cat’s part of the adventure.

Cat visits a place called Wild Island, which is mostly jungle and inhabited by wild animals. First, she describes the island and its inhabitants, and it is not a very inviting picture. The jungle is extremely dense and the winding river is difficult to follow. The animals are so lazy they don’t even want to go around the river, which cuts through the island, to get to the other side.  Then she describes something that “makes her want to weep.”

Cat discloses the heart of her story when she tells Elmer about a baby dragon that falls out of a cloud and injures its wing.  The animals tie a big rope that is extremely tough around the dragon’s neck and imprison him.   They begin training the dragon to carry passengers across the river making their lives easier but at the same time making the dragon their slave.  He has to carry heavy loads to build up his strength, and if the dragon complains they twist his wings and beat him.

The cat becomes good friends with the dragon while on the island and they secretly talk when nobody is around.  She describes the dragon as the most miserable animal she has ever seen.  Cat promises the dragon she will help him one day.  Her plan now is for Elmer to rescue the dragon and possibly ride him.  Elmer wholeheartedly agrees to the plan.  The next step is to secretly help Elmer plan every aspect of the trip including packing up some critical supplies in his knapsack.

This is Elmer’s part of the adventure.

After six days of traveling in secrecy, Elmer reaches the island.  His immediate plan is to find the river because he knows that is where the dragon is confined. He takes many unknown paths, not really having a sense of where they will lead, but he proceeds with the conviction that he must rescue the pitiful dragon. His exploration takes him deeper into the jungle where he encounters the wild animals Cat described to him.  Elmer confronts: tigers, a lion, a rhinoceros, a gorilla, and crocodiles. Each time he interacts with a different animal his life is threatened.  The animals have their stories and personal problems that Elmer is able to resolve using his many supplies.  He never seems to panic as he calmly reaches into his trusty knapsack and pulls out one item that is perfectly suited for the present emergency.  The item always occupies and soothes the animal so Elmer is able to leave undetected and continue his trek.   It is obvious that his preparations for the trip literally save his life more than once.

The excitement of Elmer’s adventure is at its peak just as he reaches the dragon. They hear all the animals yelling and seething from the river bank.  He is an invader, and he has tricked them so he can free their dragon.   All the noise from the animals heightens the tension, and the dragon implores Elmer to hurry. Elmer takes his jackknife from his knapsack and saws through the thick rope as fast as he can before the animals reach them.  As soon as the rope is cut Elmer climbs on the dragon’s back, and they soar to freedom above Wild Island, all the angry animals, the dark jungle, and the muddy river. “Nothing in the world would every make them go back to Wild Island.”

This book is recommended for grades 2-3.  I’m not convinced this is ideal for young second graders for independent reading or subject matter. That is a judgment parents should make based on their child’s reading ability and maturity in handling examples of cruelty and the fierceness of the animals. It is helpful to note that the cruelty of the animals and parental discipline of the mother are only mentioned and not described in detail, but they are important aspects of the story. Proficient third grade readers and even older children will do well with this book, and it is an excellent read aloud book for them also.  The adventures of Elmer will appeal to action lovers and the chapter set up is ideal for reading one adventure a day.

My Father’s Dragon is the first book in a trilogy about the dragon.

Awards and Honors:

This is a Newberry Honor Book in 1949 and was an ALA Notable Book. It was also nominated for the Ambassador Book Award in 1948.

Possible Issues:

  • Elmer gets a whipping from his mother when she finds out he secretly keeps and feeds the cat in the cellar after she tells him to get rid of the cat.
  • Elmer is so upset his mother is unkind to the cat he runs away from home.
  • The animals of Wild Island mistreat the dragon. They twist his wings and beat him if he complains.
  • When the animals see Elmer cutting the rope from the dragon’s neck they yell, “Kill him! Kill him!”

Further Discussion:

  • A mouse on Wild Island inspects Elmer’s knapsack thinking it is a rock. He says, “Queer, queer,….”  Children, even at this age, need the precise definition of the word queer for appropriate comprehension. [queer: odd or unusual]
  • My Father’s Dragon Lapbook : 11 activities that fill one folder
  • Dramatize the scenes on Wild Island between Elmer and the animals using puppets.
      1. Supplies: paper plates; dowels or craft sticks; colored construction paper; yarn; glue; markers or crayons
      2. Procedure: Use the paper plates, construction paper, yarn, and makers or crayons to make puppets for each animal Elmer encounters. Glue a stick to the bottom of each paper plate.
      3. Collect the supplies that Elmer had in his knapsack.
      4. Dramatize each scene between Elmer and the animals or a parent could read the narrative while the actors perform the dialogue.

Catholic Resources:

  • Cat wisely helps Elmer prepare for the trip to Wild Island because she knows the dangers he will face. She carefully chooses each item to make up the supplies, which are crucial for his survival.  This story reminds us as parents that we have the same responsibility to prepare our children to face the world they encounter every day, and we more importantly have to prepare them spiritually to face the threats of the world that are most dangerous to them.
  • The following resources are suggestions for parents to help with the duty of spiritually arming our children, beginning with a strong family prayer life.
    1. A Short Guide to Praying as a Family: Growing Together in Faith and Love Each Day by Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia Congregation [This includes basic prayers, family rosary time, family monthly meetings, etc.]

    1. This is one of my personal favorites. The Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers “The newly revised Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers is the perfect resource for parents and children to explore the rich treasury of the Catholic tradition of prayer. Use Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers to: Learn the by-hearts essential prayers that every Catholic child and adult need to know by memory; Practice the simple form of the Liturgy of the Hours as a family; Celebrate the feasts and seasons of the Church year in ritual and prayer ; Bless the sacramentals that are part of the Catholic tradition like the advent wreath, Christmas crèche, Easter foods, and candles for the home .”  There is so much more included in this book.

  1. Faith, Family, Fun: “Catholic family life is an opportunity to recognize the grace of God in daily living. Choose a link for ideas on how to nurture your family’s faith.” Loyola Press.
  1. “Family prayer has its own characteristic qualities. It is prayer offered in common, husband and wife together, parents and children together…by reason of their dignity and mission, Christian parents have the specific responsibility of educating their children in prayer, introducing them to gradual discovery of the mystery of God and to personal dialogue with Him.” St. John Paul II
    • CCC 2416    Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
    • “Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for God’s holy truth. St. George was a brave martyr who was victorious over the devil. He was a brave soldier in the Roman army – a soldier of Christ. He is a good saint to talk about when facing dangerous situations.”
    • Read the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Daniel 6