(A) Ages 0-4, (B) Ages 4-8, (C) Ages 8-10, (D) Ages 10-12, Book Reviews, Family Read Alouds, Nonfiction, Picture Books, Starred Reviews
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*John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister

Lovely illustrations and beautiful narrative prose tell the story of Tolkien, from boyhood to The Hobbit.

*John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook, 2017, 48 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: all ages, especially Tolkien fans

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved words. He loved stories too, first stories read by his mother and later stories read at school. Dragons featured in some of his favorite stories. But once he grew up, the boy would create a dragon of his own who is remembered to this day. For the boy is J. R. R. Tolkien.

Beginning with Tolkien’s boyhood, Caroline McAlister traces his life and carefully shows the influences that played into The Hobbit. Tolkien lovers will appreciate the depth of research that is conveyed in lyrical, flowing prose.

This picture book biography is a joy to read aloud. Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations match the text perfectly. Green and hopeful at the beginning, hues of gray as Tolkien is orphaned, muddy as he writes a letter in a trench, and then back to brighter colors as Tolkien begins his own story. Dragons haunt the pages, hinted at in the sky, shadowed on the floor, and finally culminating in Tolkien’s own dragon.

There is an element of story within story, for as Tolkien writes The Hobbit, McAlister invites readers along on the creative journey. After writing his famous first line she observes,

He didn’t yet know what a hobbit was. It wasn’t a dragon, but he followed it anyway. . . . He gave Bilbo hairy feet. Bilbo lived in a cozy underground home in the Shire . . . .

But, as readers and Tolkien discover, Bilbo will lead us, page by page, over mountains and through forest, to the Lonely Mountain. And there we find John Ronald’s Dragon, in a gorgeous illustrated blaze of fiery red.

Adults and older readers will appreciate the endpapers which contain more information about Tolkien and the illustrator’s careful details. (You’ll be amazed by how many facts she wove into each page!)

John Ronald’s Dragons is a perfect book for Tolkien lovers of all ages as well as for those who loves dragons and stories. It captures the creative power of story and storytelling, but doesn’t lose the ability to tell its own story in the process. Overall, a beautiful book that flows gorgeously as a read aloud and is sure to become a favorite in many Tolkien loving homes.

Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 5
  • Artistic/literary value: 5

This isn’t the first book we’ve reviewed featuring dragons! See Here Be Dragons, a Mega Fantasy and Sci-Fi Booklist for all ages for many more suggestions. Looking for another picture book biography? Don’t miss Finding Narnia, a biography of C. S. Lewis by Caroline McAlister, as well as our Picture Book Biographies Booklist.

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