A moving story of sadness, joy, and hope … and of course a dragon.
TW: mention of domestic violence, death, childhood grief
Australian author Karen Foxlee burst into the world of great storytellers with her multi-award-winning novel Lenny’s Book of Everything. She has written several well-loved books including Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and the charming picture book Horatio Squeak, but her ability to tell a children’s story with sadness, joy and heart is almost unsurpassed. Dragon Skin is no exception. Foxlee grew up in the Australian mining town of Mount Isa and it is this background she has drawn upon for this new novel.
Dragon Skin is the story of 10-year-old Pip, a young girl who lives with her mother and mother’s boyfriend in an Australian mining town. It is always hot and the children need to make their own fun by climbing hills, walking along the dry riverbeds, sitting by the waterhole (where bunyips may live) and riding their bikes through the town. But Pip has a constant shadow. Her mum’s boyfriend is abusive and her best friend has passed away. All her happiness has been sucked away. Pip is lost and lonely, afraid to go home and grieving for both her friend and the life she had before the new boyfriend arrived and changed their lives.
One day Pip finds a baby dragon by the creek. It is nearly dead, but she is determined to help it recover. She must keep it hidden from everyone she knows, but she finds herself inexplicably changing and eventually needs to rely on others as well.
The story is full of metaphors. Younger children may see much of the text as just part of the story, but older children who are ready for some of the more confronting themes will recognise them for what they are.
We discover that everyone has secrets and we can’t judge what a person’s life is like by what we see on the surface. All the children in this story have secrets. Dragon Skin is about hope and never giving up … but also letting go.
This book is divided into three acts, splitting the story into distinct parts: roughly equating to finding the dragon, making new friends, and saying goodbye. Foxlee has also included websites and phone numbers at the end of the book in case this story strikes a chord with any readers.
Foxlee is able to weave a beautiful tale which makes you laugh and cry. Her characterisations are wonderful and the story never ceases to draw the reader in. We understand domestic violence through the eyes of the child, but also through her mother. The dryness of the landscape comes through on every page. The gum trees, cockatoos, snakes and lizards draw a perfect picture of this sunburnt country. Dragon Skin takes the reader on a journey and makes it difficult to put the book down.
This is not a story for every child. The themes are overwhelmingly about domestic violence, loss and grief. It is often sad and scary, but also shows strength of character and the need for like-minded souls in our lives who can lift us when necessary. It is hard to write a story with themes this confronting and most authors will shy away from them. But when written with compassion and healing, as Foxlee has done, this kind of story may just give a child going through a similarly difficult time in their lives the courage to speak up.
Reviewed by Sue Mauger
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: September 2021