Ellie’s Dragon by Bob Graham (Walker Books Australia) is shortlisted for the CBCA 2021 Picture Book of the Year. It is an exceptional work.
Bob Graham is, of course, one of Australia and the world’s best picture book creators for young children. His work is gentle yet piercingly observant, humorous yet tender, delicate yet profound, poignant yet uplifting, realistic yet hopeful. It always exudes love.
Ellie in Ellie’s Dragon finds a baby dragon when she is very young. She cares for Scratch and plays with him but her mother can’t see him. Other children see him but adults can’t. When Ellie forgets to take Scratch with her on her first day of school, she misses his first flight. Scratch grows big as Ellie matures, and their relationship changes. Neglected for other exciting activities, Scratch slowly becomes invisible and fades. After he disappears Ellie still sometimes recognises a flicker, scent or sound that reminds her of Scratch.
Just before the tale becomes too heartbreaking, another child, Little Sam, finds Scratch wandering down the High Street. Scratch is now “a fully grown, house-trained, affectionate dragon, just looking for a new home” and he will probably live with Little Sam for “some time to come”.
Ellie’s Dragon is about growing and changing and how the precious imagination of childhood can be lost as children mature. However, imagination is a tenacious creature that will always welcome and enthral new generations. Imagination is an intrinsic part of a child’s life and, at the same time, it is part of the natural cycle of life for children to grow up and find new interests and pastimes. Ellie’s Dragon will remind its readers of the value of imagination in childhood and throughout a lifetime.
Using the book with children:
Ellie and Scratch the Dragon Grow Create a height chart to plot Ellie and Scratch’s growing heights. Sketch thumbnail pictures onto the chart as they grow and label these to show how they change.
Who can see the dragon? Children look through the book Ellie’s Dragon to find which creatures – human and otherwise – can see the dragon. Discuss why these creatures can see the dragon and why others cannot.
Birds Find the bird/s in the story. Discuss why they may be included.
Ellie’s Father Ellie lives with her mother. When does she see her father? Track the occasional illustrations of her father (who often wears a hoodie) throughout the book, with particular attention to the final endpaper. Is there any correlation between Ellie’s family situation and her relationship with and dependence on Scratch?
Title Discuss why the book is called Ellie’s Dragon even though Scratch and Ellie part ways.
Newborn Dragon The newborn dragon is shown crawling across an egg carton at the beginning of the book. It is “pale and luminous with shifting rainbow colours, like oil on water.” It has little claws, tiny white wings and eyes as black as charcoal. Children mould newborn dragons from playdough, plasticine or modelling clay in the rainbow colours Bob Graham uses (which also feature in the book’s title). Add claws and wings made of pipe-cleaners as well as small black eyes. Display these on egg cartons.
Books by Bob Graham Bob Graham has an exceptional backlist of picture books. Children pick and choose from a selection of these to read and enjoy. (Provide as many as possible of his books, including How to Heal a Broken Wing, Home in the Rain, Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten, Let’s Get a Pup, A Bus Called Heaven, Greetings From Sandy Beach, The Silver Button, Queenie the Bantam, Jethro Byrde Fairy Child and The Underhills: A Tooth Fairy Story)
The Underhills: A Tooth Fairy Story is shortlisted for the Russell Prize for Humour Writing for Young People (of which I am a judge).
Illustrator Study Compare and contrast the following in Ellie’s Dragon and other books by Bob Graham:
- Characters (including how they differ from many other picture books with their “everyday people” of all ages and natural multicultural representation; and faces drawn in comic-style with big noses and dots or minimal strokes for eyes)
- Setting (may often be urban with supermarkets, airports, factories, fences, telegraph poles …)
- Colour palette (often pastel)
- Camera angles (including from above)
- Page composition characteristically is a mixture of one page and double-page spreads, as well as vignettes and framed and (in Ellie’s Dragon) unframed panels
- The story often begins before the title page
- Blend of reality and fantasy
- Deep insight into people and care of them invariably features
Children create their own picture using one or more of Bob Graham’s characters, one of his settings, some of the colours he typically uses and a dog or bird.