Ever since Sprout started preschool, art has become a big thing for him. His teachers believe in affording the kids lots of opportunities to stretch their creative muscles, providing them with all kinds of fun art supplies and giving them (mostly) free rein. One night a few weeks ago I came in to pick him up and he was busily constructing a caterpillar for Daddy's office - cut-up egg carton, pipecleaner antennae and googly eyes, just like I remember doing when I was in elementary school. It's so much fun to see the pride in his eyes when we display one of his fantastic creations, such as the neon noodle art and sponge paintings that are hanging on the family fridge even as we speak.
That same spirit of creativity is alive and well in Carole Lexa Schaefer's Dragon Dancing. Set in a preschool much like Sprout's, populated with a diverse cross-section of kiddos, the story begins with the class reading a book about dragons. Fueled by thoughts of these fire-breathing beasts, the students begin using their art supplies to create a magical dragon of their own. Soon the children, "in a long dragon line", are transported right out of their classroom and into strange and beautiful worlds beyond. The flights of fancy this creative parade takes can only be brought back to earth when the children are called back in by their teacher (of course).
One of the things we like best about Dragon Dancing is the way illustrator Pierr Morgan makes use of every bit of the page to tell her visual story. Sprout can pretty much read this for himself, Morgan's pictures are so vivid and lively. She captures the joy of the child-dragon as it ascends a snow-topped peak or tiptoes past breakfasting panda bears, starkly black-and-white against a background of soft bamboo forest. I'd love to know just how the artwork was created, because it strikes just the right balance between realism and softly whispered imaginings. This one's definitely a feast for the eyes, if ever there was one.
And the text is great too, filled with the kinds of phrases any true devotee of read-aloud will love to share. The dragon's not just dancing through the flowers, he is "swirl-whirling around whispery meadows." Rather than just swimming, he's "slip-sliding across foamy seas." You can just about feel the atmosphere Schaefer's dreamed up, just by the choice of dialogue she employs. This is magical stuff, and a great beginning to conversations about word choices and shades of meaning.
That is, if you get that far - you may just be captivated, as Sprout and I are, by the bounty of delightful imagery each page brings. At the end, Sprout's completely tickled by the fact that the children transform back into themselves just in time to share Mei Lin's birthday snack - lollipops, which he feels sure a dragon wouldn't really enjoy that much. And who knows, maybe he's right - but then again, a dancing dragon could need a little sugar boost too.
Don't save this one for Chinese New Year - bring it out any time you and your little ones want a feast for all your senses, in the form of this vibrant storytime choice!
Dragon Dancing by Carole Lexa Schaefer, published by Viking
Sample: "After, in the art room, we decorate for Mei Lin's birthday with sparkly paper and ribbons. Snip, twirl, flip. 'Look at me!' Mei Lin shouts. 'I'm Birthday Dragon!'"