How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon How to Train Your Dragon is a funny adventure that has absolutely nothing but a few names in common with the movie based on it. A bunch of young Vikings are attempting to survive their rites of passage, which include capturing and training a hatchling dragon that will serve as a hunting companion. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, the small and scholarly heir of the clan’s leader, struggles to prove himself not only to his tribe and father, but also to his peers who don’t value his strengths.

He ends up with Toothless, a tiny and incredibly stubborn dragon. Things aren’t looking promising for Hiccup to pass his initiation, and in fact the entire generation of young Vikings faces exile for failing their tests. But in the end the boys and their dragons unite against a larger threat and save the Viking villages from being eaten by gigantic sea dragons.

The book itself is interesting to look at, with lots of pencil sketches and pages of information, including stats for the types of dragons—these will look familiar to lots of kids who play games. Some of the words in the text are in different fonts and all caps, and some words are capitalized which seems to give them more meaning.

On the surface, this is an amusing read. It claims to be translated from the Old Norse, based on the writings of mighty Viking hero Hiccup—while it also assures the reader that “Any relationship to any historical fact whatsoever is entirely coincidental.”  With some reflection, beyond the humor there are some issues brought up that are thought provoking, such as the validity of some parental expectations, the philosophy of the circle of life, and what it means to be courageous.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Middle grade humor

It’s full of rude names, like Snotlout, Baggybum, and Duhbrain. There’s a sketch of a character’s nekkid bum with a mermaid tattoo on it. It turns out that Baggybum’s “hairy knickers” and Hiccup’s mom’s “extra-strong heavy duty bra” make great containers for feather bombs—these are sketched, of course. The bra in particular works well as a double bomb and is featured in several illustrations.

Language

In addition to the mildly rude language in the names, the word “hell” is used once. The boys’ teacher insults them in drill-sergeant fashion, calling them idiotic, fat, etc. as he “inspires” them to go into the dragon cave.

Violence

Most of the actual violence is cartoonish in nature—the sea dragons die in the end, but everyone else somehow survives whatever they go through. The Green Death—one of the sea dragons—graphically eats a few sheep and explains in some detail how to fillet a human being to get rid of the tickly spine.

Stereotypes

There are a lot of familiar tropes in the story. There are nerdy kids who have to hide their knowledge because being smart isn’t valued. One of them of course has allergies that keep him from fully participating with his peers. The bullies are all about pounding on weaker kids. The adults are mostly less competent than the kids.

However, there are those who break the stereotypes, too. The heir of the neighboring tribe actually values Hiccup’s knowledge—he’s not the dumb brute that the other big powerful kids are. The dragons are supposed to be totally self-centered, but in the end Toothless proves that they can care about people, too. Hiccup’s knowledge led to an unconventional approach to training, which led to affection, which led to Toothless reacting against type.

Power

A lot of the story is about who has power. Often this means who is bigger—the bully is bigger than Hiccup, until there’s an even bigger kid who values Hiccup’s leadership. The sea dragons trump everything. But then knowledge becomes power—the things that Hiccup knows put him in a position to help his clan when no one else can. Once it’s clear that his knowledge is critical, Hiccup learns to stand up to his dad—he now has the power, so he can stand up for himself.

The Green Death is very philosophical about power. He eats what is smaller than he is, which is pretty much everything. Eventually he will die and become one with the earth. He wields his power fairly casually—at least until there’s a rival his own size. Then the two powers defeat each other.

Family

Hiccup’s dad seems to love him and be proud of him, even though the boy doesn’t exactly live up to Viking ideals. However, when pushed, he does what is expected of him as a leader, even though it means exiling his son and all the other boys his age. Hiccup asks what kind of father values laws above his son—the other heir agrees with him. Of course, in the end they find a way around the exile.

Knowledge

The expert on training dragons wrote a supposedly valuable book which everyone recommends. The whole of the text is “The Golden Rule of Dragon-Training is to…YELL AT IT! (The louder the better.)The end.” Although this is obviously limited, it takes a long time before the clan finally admits that this expert is useless. Hiccup’s study of dragons and his ability to speak their language (something that technically is not allowed) saves them all in the end. Although he’s not big and strong, Hiccup is eventually seen as a powerful hero because of the things he knows.

Religion

There’s some mention of Thor—a thunderstorm is seen as a sign from the god—but he doesn’t seem to do much to answer Hiccup’s requests. Hiccup’s grandfather is certain he’s given visions of the future, although he’s rarely correct.

Courage

Courage is explicitly discussed in several places. You can be frightened and still have courage—in fact, Hiccup was braver than his cohorts because he went into the dragon cave even though he knew enough about dragons to know what they were walking into.

What the bards say is Hiccup’s great act of courage—going to talk to the sea dragon—isn’t really that brave because he had no choice. It doesn’t take much courage to do something when there are no other options. It’s the smaller acts—things you could get out of or avoid—that require true courage.

Recommendation

This is a fun and funny adventure, with a main character I think a lot of kids will identify with. I expected it to have more in common with the movie (one of my favorite animated movies), but that didn’t really detract from the story. It’s surprisingly thought provoking for a book full of mildly rude humor and cartoonish characters. The pages are interesting to look at, with ink blots and sketches in the margins. It will likely appeal to both precocious and reluctant readers.

 Son Update:

I often wondered why this book didn’t grab my son’s attention—he was excited when we bought it, he tried to read it, and he put it down for several years. It seemed like it should be perfect for him, so I was confused.

After I read it for this review, he decided to give the book another try and he loved it. He said that the first time he tried, he really wanted it to be like the movie, which at the time was one of his favorites. The second time around, the movie wasn’t an influence and he really enjoyed the book. In fact, we bought the second book and he read it in two days! I think this book does much better if you separate it completely from the movie—they’re both great but should never be thought of together.

 

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
Published in 2003 by Little, Brown and Company
First in a series
Read my son’s copy

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