The problem of how to wean tweens and teenagers from their cell phones, IPods and other devices long enough to actually have a meaningful conversation with them becomes more acute when summer comes, and you’re taking them on a road trip. If you dread the constant “Are we there yet?” and “I’m bored,” I have a suggestion: try a buddy-read. Granted, you may have to be subtle to get the buddy-read to work. If you “assign” the book to them, it will feel too much like school. Instead, I’d be sneaky and say, “I’m reading this book, and I can’t decide how I feel about the heroine. I’d love to know what you think.” Then give them a copy, sit back and wait.
For a book both you and the kids can enjoy and discuss, Jasper Fforde’s “The Last Dragonslayer” is a great choice. Like the Harry Potter books, it’s aimed at the young adult reader, but not-so-young adults will find it entertaining, too. Fforde is adept at reimaging history and creating a world that is both fantastical and realistic. “The Last Dragonslayer” is set, not in Great Britain as we know it today, but in the Kingdom of Hereford (ruled by King Snodd IV), which is part of the “Ununited Kingdoms.” While Hereford is typical of the modern era, complete with pop stars, TV, mopeds, Starbucks and organ transplants, it’s also a place where sorcerers, soothsayers, flying carpet drivers, dragons and magic still exist.
In addition to the inept and unpleasant King Snodd, the Kingdom of Hereford is home to a highly entertaining collection of characters. Chief among them is the protagonist and narrator, 15-year-old Jennifer Strange. She is a foundling, brought up in an orphanage run by an odd sisterhood called “The Blessed Ladies of the Lobster.” Children with special abilities raised by the good sisters are, at age 12, sent out to work as indentured servants until their 18th birthdays.
Jennifer works for Kazan Mystical Arts Management, where she is now acting manager, due to the disappearance of her master, Mr. Zambini. She, along with her stable of 45 oddball mystical artisans, lives in the rundown Zambini Towers, which features self-cleaning rooms, a broken elevator, and things that go bump in the night. Her main job is to pretty much babysit her aging and cantankerous clients, but she also has to find them work and provide taxi service via her rusty, orange VW Beetle. In the past, magic was strong in the United Kingdoms, but as the story opens, we find it’s been on the wane for years, and Jennifer’s once-powerful tenants are now reduced to using their faltering powers to unclog drains, exterminate moles and rewire houses for clients who want work done quickly.
In addition to the cranky, strange, and sometimes insane inhabitants of Zambini Towers, we meet the latest indentured servant, Tiger Prawn, an agreeable and intelligent 12-year-old who will take over Jennifer’s job once her period of servitude ends. But he’s not nearly as interesting as the Quarkbeast, Jennifer’s loyal pet and defender, whom she rescued from certain death as he was scaring the daylights out of customers at a Starbucks). She describes him as “nine-tenths velociraptor and kitchen blender and one-tenth Labrador,” and says he looks like “an open knife drawer on legs.” The Quarkbeast enjoys eating anything metal — chains, unopened cans of dog food, entire cars.
And, of course, there’s Maltcassion, the last dragon, an aging, tired beast with tattered wings and “a tongue the size of a mattress.” He awaits his death in the Dragonlands, a lovely natural preserve, protected, for the moment, by a force field only a Dragonslayer can cross without being vaporized. Maltcassion is actually rather fond of humans. He admires their curiosity, sense of humor, and the fact that they have thumbs. Jennifer learns she is destined to destroy him after a meeting her predecessor, Brian Spalding, who gives her a short course in dragon slaying, a Slayermobile, and a sword called Exhorbitus (because it’s so costly).
Dragons may be old-school, but the conflict Maltcassion’s predicted demise creates is decidedly modern. Once the last dragon is dead, its preserve is no longer protected, and hordes of people gather, eager to lay claim to a plot, while a nefarious organization, Consolidated Useful Stuff Land Development Corporation, aims for an out-and-out land grab. Sound familiar? Once Jennifer has visited this beautiful, unspoiled wilderness and has met Maltcassion, she is determined to protect both at all costs.
The main reason “The Last Dragonslayer” is such a great book to share with young readers is that they will relate to Jennifer. Like many teens, she feels like an outsider, since she’s at the bottom rung of the current social order. She’s also headstrong, impetuous, heedless of her own safety, and fiercely loyal. At the same time, Jennifer serves as a great role model because she’s tough, smart and mature for her age, in addition to having a strong moral compass many of her elders lack. She tries to do what’s right regardless of the consequences, which include being ostracized and facing arrest and even death.
In addition to its strong central character, “The Last Dragonslayer” offers themes you and your reading buddy will want to talk about, such as endangered species, exploitation, greed and fame. At the same time, the book reveals how one can be part of a family of unrelated people, the importance of standing up for what you believe in, and in facing one’s destiny. We also learn, along with Jennifer, that magic is something we all possess: “…an emotional energy…that we can’t understand; it exists only in our hearts and minds.” We all need a little magic in our lives, and you and your fellow reader will certainly find it in this intriguing book.
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