It’s not often that I read an entire book in just one or two sittings, but that’s exactly what I did earlier this week with Jennifer Trafton’s eagerly-anticipated new novel, Henry and the Chalk Dragon. Friends of Story Warren might know Trafton from her earlier book, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, or her awesome creative writing classes for kids, or her contribution to this year’s Wingfeather Tales collection. Knowing and loving all those things as I do, I was thrilled to sit down with Henry and the Chalk Dragon and jump into more of Trafton’s writing.
Henry is a story for anyone—ANYONE—who has ever sat down and started to draw, or paint, or write, or play the piano, or participate in any type of creative endeavor at any point in their lives. That is to say, it’s a story for everyone. Henry Penwhistle has a vivid, silly, active imagination, and he loves to draw things from it. He especially loves to draw on the back of his bedroom door, which is covered with chalkboard paint. It is on that chalky door that one evening, Henry draws a dragon. A jungle green dragon, with sharp teeth and “wings so wingish they could have lifted Henry’s whole bedroom into the air and carried it to a secret lair on the other side of the sea” (a very Trafton-ish descriptor, and one that I loved). It is a very impressive and awfully scary dragon, and upon the suggestion that it be erased to make room for something else, the dragon reveals something else about itself; this dragon is not just a dragon. It encompasses every other creature that Henry has ever drawn on his bedroom door, and it can move. In its journey to avoid erasure, it just might, for instance…turn into a jungle green spider, stow away in Henry’s lunchbox, and, in the middle of class, decide that it’s time to break out and see the world of La Muncha Elementary School.
The prospect of his dragon, his prized Work of Art, walking around where people can see it is both exciting and horrifying for Henry, and this is where the deeper layers of Trafton’s story start to show themselves. Henry loves to wear his milk carton helmet and wave his feather duster sword as he imagines himself a knight at the heart of all the adventures featured in his sketchbook, Sir Henry’s Quest. But the armor, the quest, the drawings; these things have always just been his, his own private imaginings. Not even his best friend, Oscar, has seen them all. If his drawings were out in the world, people would surely laugh at them, would laugh at him—wouldn’t they? Henry’s protective tinfoil armor raincoat, covered all over inside with reminders of chivalry, might help him to feel brave, but he still knows what it’s like to be laughed at—like “being chewed to death by a smile.”
Along with catching his runaway dragon, protecting his friends Oscar and Jade, and transforming the school’s National Vegetable Week Art Show into something quite different, Henry’s real quest in the story is learning to be brave; to be vulnerable in the face of critics, to draw even when he’s not sure if people will like it. Some encouraging words from Henry’s bus driver, Mr. Bruce, read like a manifesto for creativity: “You have to be brave to be an artist. You have to squeeze your fear deep down in your chest, and make something new.” I loved how these words touch everyone in the story; not just Henry, but his classmates, the lunch lady, Henry’s teacher, and the principal. No one is left unmoved by Henry and his jungle green dragon— fierce and fearsome and full of fire—and, reader, I doubt you will be either.
Henry and the Chalk Dragon is chock-full of poetic metaphors, silly wordplay, epic songs in praise of heroics, and spot-on imaginative illustrations by Benjamin Schipper. I loved it all, from the jungle green endpapers to the booklist of some of Henry’s favorite stories. I know several parents who have found it to be a great read-aloud story for the whole family, and I’ll be recommending it to friends of all ages. I’m sure I’ll be circling back to it for a re-read the next time that I need a reminder, as Henry does, that to be an artist is to be brave.