I was drawn to this book because of the title: The Dragon and the Unicorn. I've always enjoyed fantasy books about dragons and unicorns, and this one looked like it might have an unique spin compared to more traditional stories. I was not disappointed.
This children's picture book is about a dragon named Valerio and his friend the unicorn Allegra. Their relationship and peaceful life in Ardet Forest is interrupted by the arrival of humans. King Orlando is changing the forest and only one person cares, other than the creatures that live there: the young Princess Arianna. Can Ardet Forest be saved? Can the humans learn to live in harmony with the magical creatures all around them? These and many more environmental questions are asked as children are taken on a ecological fantasy journey.
What makes this book so interesting is that the author researched every aspect. Lynne Cherry dedicated the book "to the over one hundred authors and illustrators of the Center for Children's Environmental Literature and to Dad, who taught [her] to love the forest, and to Mom, who encouraged [her] to paint it." On the copyright page, I read some of her acknowledgements and was very happy to discover the resources that inspired the beautiful illustrations (I've only listed a few):
Not only did she use real photos and information about national forests to create her artwork and story, real people embody the characters. Patrick Ukata posed as King Orlando, and Lena Jackson posed as Princess Arianna. Even Allegra, the unicorn, was inspired by a horse, Bahim Hisan of Ba-HI Black Arabians. These details add realism to a seemingly fantastical piece.
So, the setting for Ardet Forest is real, which makes sense because the illustrations look like real places. Every waterfall, tree, plant, and animal is based on photos that Lynne Cherry painted. Eventually, the setting transforms thanks to the development and industrial progress of humans, namely King Orlando and his knights. Rather than living in harmony with nature, the people fear the unknown and mystical elements of the forest, which leads them to believe tearing it down is the safest course. A magical forest can't hurt you if you conquer it's magic.
This setting transformation feeds directly into the plot. All the humans are happy about the changes except Princess Arianna, who tries to save the animals from the destruction. The animals themselves are afraid; they are being displaced. The dragon and the unicorn are especially in danger because they are hunted by the knights, the unicorn for her horn and the dragon because the humans think he's dangerous. Thankfully, because this is a children's picture book, parents can be assured that there will be a happy ending to all this destruction.
There is essentially no character development, not even during the reconciliation of the humans and the animals. The book is too short to have any character development, and the focus is really nature, not the humans.
The themes and motifs of this short picture book are quite obvious: Protect the environment and live in harmony with nature and its creatures. There is a less obvious theme of learning from nature; there is much in nature that can save us. Allegra explains this to the princess:
"Many, many years from now a disease will come to humans that only the bark of this tree can cure. But what if you have cut down all the yew trees? And your people will be visited by other illnesses. The cures may be in this golden mushroom or this flower or this vine or this moss hanging from the branches above us. You must not destroy the forest. Your life is tied to the life of the forest." (21)
Unfortunately, a lot of the themes and motifs are too preachy for my tastes. There is no subtlety, and perhaps there can't be when addressing these issues to children. Being blatant and to the point might help kids understand the purpose behind the writing/story.
There are no literary elements used in this picture book. Instead, the author alludes to the fact that dragons and unicorns used to exist until humans tore apart their habitats. Lynne Cherry indirectly implies that magic is inherent in the forest, and that creatures like dragons and unicorns rely on the forest to survive. So, she combines fantasy with ecological fiction in order inspire children to save the natural resources of the world.
The message/purpose behind this book is to save the national forests and beauty of nature. Lynne Cherry says that humans and technology/industry can live in harmony with nature, although she doesn't allude to how. In the book, King Orlando orders a decree where no more trees will be cut down. The forest will be preserved. I do think this type of a decree would be important to pass in our modern society, especially in regards to rainforests around the world. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be that easy since so much of the world is run by capitalists and businesses that are trying to make money.
I can't compare this book to many others of the genre except for The Lorax, which I prefer over The Dragon and the Unicorn. The rhymes in The Loraxmark it as a classic; who can say no to the talented Dr. Seuss? Plus, I don't recall the ecological focus being shoved down the reader's throat. It's more of a journey, and the child reader learns to make their own judgments based on what happens. The Dragon and the Unicorn is the first children's picture book I've read with such a blatant agenda and environmental focus. I've read adult eco-fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi reads, but it's like comparing apples and oranges because the audiences are completely different.
What makes this book a great children's read are, surprise...surprise, the illustrations! Lynne Cherry is more talented as an artist than a storyteller. Each page is beautiful and extremely detailed. She gives the fantasy/fairy tale appeal by including a border around every page. The border is complex patterns of vines intertwined with smaller photos of animals and nature. The details are absorbing, and I could see a lot of children not even reading the book and instead letting the illustrations tell the story, creating their own fantasies with just the images. The only negative thing about the illustrations is that the binding of the book gets in the way. A lot of the images between the two pages, located in the border section, gets cut off by the hardback binding. The images are sucked into the middle of the two pages, and the only way to view them would be to break the binding.
Overall, The Dragon and the Unicorn was just ok. I didn't like the blatant agenda pushing, even though I completely agree with the author's assessment and perspective. It took too much away from the story, and it was less enjoyable for me. The second aspect that really bothered me was the fact that Princess Arianna essentially gets kidnapped by the dragon and the unicorn. You can dress it up all you want, but she was missing for over two weeks. I couldn't imagine how scary that would be for any parent. This is when it's important to remind yourself that it's a fantasy read. Like most fantasy reads, we suspend reality for a bit. It just unnerved me that the author took a predictable course.
Another disappointing aspect of the picture book was the father. Why did he take so long to search for his daughter? King Orlando relies on his lackeys, the knights, to search for his daughter even when his wife advises otherwise. He's lucky that this was a peaceful dragon who protects unicorns and princesses rather than eating them. In fact, I was surprised that the dragon ate the same food items as the unicorn, "on the hill they ate blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and raspberries" (3). Every creature in this forest is gentle and peaceful. Somehow, they all live in harmony despite the fact that, realistically speaking, you have herbivores and carnivores. Nature can be quite vicious. Still, I enjoyed the different take on dragons. It's nice to see them as protectors rather than fire-breathing monsters. In fact, the only time this dragon breathes fire is when he gets upset over how the unicorn is being treated. The fire and smoke was an accident. It's a good message for children-- violence and anger do not solve problems.
I recommend this picture book to all readers, although adults might enjoy it more than children because the pacing is slow. It's recommended as a forest conservation picture book for children ages 3-7. I agree that this book is perfectly suited to that age group and even an older one. I imagine, though, that the younger children will get more excited from simply looking at the pictures than from reading the story.
What did you think of this review?