Dragons have been a staple of folklore across Asia, but in literature, at least in English, dragons have mostly been of the Western variety. This may be changing, at least in children’s books. Two authors have recently used dragons in their stories., both set in Japan, or a fantasy world based on Japan, and both feature relationships between pre-teens and their aging grandparents.
Emi Watanabe Cohen’s The Lost Ryū is set in post-war Japan when ten year-old Kohei begins to search for a lost ryū or dragon in order to bring happiness to his grumpy grandfather. Kohei believes this lost ryū may have the answers to his grandfather’s problems.
Kohei and other Japanese citizens have small dragons, and the large ones have become a thing of the past. The home of these large dragons has also become a thing of the past, or so Kohei thinks.
Ryugu-jo was a mythical place—a red-and-white coral palace in the darkest depths of the sea, the domain of the ancient ryū gods. It had disappeared so long ago that it was even more of a mystery than the giant ryū themselves. When Kohei was a baby, someone gave him a picture book with a full-color illustration of the palace—he remembered pressing his tiny fingertips against the elegant image, half believing that he’d be able to touch the magic itself if he tried hard enough.
Kohei meets a girl his age who has just moved into his building from the United States. Isolde is half-Japanese and half-Jewish and has a dragon herself, but a Yiddish-speaking one. The kids compare their Eastern and Western dragons: the former comes from the sea and the latter from the mountains.
Julie Abe’s Alliana, Girl of Dragons is a take on Cinderella set in a mythical land that resembles ancient Japan.
Alliana is orphaned after her mother dies in childbirth and her father disappears in a horrible accident in the nearby abyss when Alliana is just old enough to start forming lasting memories. When the story begins, she is eleven years old and deeply misses her father. She finds solace in the relationship she forms with her stepmother’s mother-in-law, a woman she calls Grandmother Mari.
When Grandmother Mari passes away, Alliana hopes to leave her stepmother and two step-siblings behind. The stepmother had other plans. Alliana leans on her baker friend, Isao, also eleven.
Dragons don’t appear in Abe’s story until about one third into it. As in Cohen’s book, the smaller dragons are normal and harmless, while the larger dragons—nightdragons in Abe’s story—are more mysterious and feared. Alliana finds a small dragon that will go on to help her finally become free of her stepmother.
The creature, despite its tiny size, had a round belly, four short legs ending in claws, and smooth, hard skin as leathery as shadowsnake. It couldn’t be a nightdragon—Alliana didn’t see its wings, nor had she ever heard of a teacup-sized dragon. And the lost, innocent way it gazed up at Alliana looked like anything but those vicious predators.
Both authors have created vivid worlds for their dragons and their humans. In both books, dragons are less the fearsome, fire-breathing sort that tended to populate English-language children’s books of a generation or two ago, but rather serve as friends that provide comfort in stressful situations all while helping the main characters become closer to their grandparents.