I read Dragonwings for school when I was in the fifth grade, but other than remembering that it was about Chinese people (and also one ha-ha moment involving cow urine), I remembered very little about this wonderful and well-respected children’s novel when I started to read it with one of my one-on-one tutoring students this past August. This student was only eight, but her reading level was very advanced, and she had already reached that point where she had read most of the children’s books out there but didn’t know where to start when it came to choosing books from the middle grades, young adult, and adult sections of a library or bookstore. Add to this the face that her parents’ sensibilities were on the conservative side, and choosing books for this young girl became a truly challenging task.
Dragonwings is usually considered a book for middle-grade readers. Schools usually assign it in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grades. It’s one of those wonderful books that are narrated simply enough for fairly young children to understand, use a simple though not simplistic vocabulary, but deal with ideas that can prompt complex discussions among children, teenagers, and adults.
Dragonwings begins in China, where eight year-old Moon Shadow lives with his mother and extended family. His father, Wind Rider, has gone off to live in the land of the demons – in other words, in the United States. In fact, Wind Rider lives in my own native city, San Francisco. The novel takes place in the very early years of the twentieth century. Moon Shadow’s family has been long acquainted with the reality that Chinese men who go to the land of the demons to work in mines or on railroad crews risk a great deal – their lives, their health, their families, their dignity – but stand to earn more money than they could ever earn at home. In the beginning of the novel, Moon Shadow has never met his father, who left for the United States before Moon Shadow was born. When his father sends word via a family member that he would like Moon Shadow to join him in San Francisco, Moon Shadow prepares himself mentally and physically for the journey.
Early in the novel, Wind Rider confides in Moon Shadow (and, by extension, in us) that he has recently learned that he was once a dragon in an earlier life – a dragon who specialized in healing. Before Moon Shadow joined him in San Francisco, Wind Rider was taken to see the Dragon King, who enlightened him as to his true identity. According to the Dragon King, Wind Rider has to live this life as a human being as punishment for an act of hubris (Hubris! There it is again – we can’t escape it!) in the dragon world.
Wind Rider’s secret identity as a dragon healer translates into his skill at building and fixing machines. While most of the people who live in Chinatown avoid all unnecessary contact with “demons,” Wind Rider develops a reputation as a handyman and makes contact with several white San Franciscans. Eventually, after an incident involving violence and a prostitute and an opium den (but let’s not tell my eight year-old student’s conservative mother about this one, OK?), Wind Rider and Moon Shadow leave Chinatown altogether and venture out into the world of the demons, even forging a path into faraway regions like the sand dunes west of downtown San Francisco, on which, in the next few decades, the neighborhood in which I was born and raised and currently live would be built.
Oh, and they also become pen pals with Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Wind Rider has long been fascinated by flight. Before he knew of his heritage as a dragon, Wind Rider was an expert maker of kites. When news of the flight at Kitty Hawk reaches Chinatown, Wind Rider writes immediately to the Wright brothers and asks them for suggestions and help as he prepares to design and build his own plane. Emboldened by his newfound understanding of his true identity, Wind Rider borrows and adapts the design of the Wrights’ plane, builds his own, and takes it on a dangerous, unsuccessful, yet exciting test flight.
This novel is perfect for elementary-school students (it doesn’t actually use the words “prostitute” and “opium den,” I promise). If any of our readers are shopping for holiday gifts for kids who like to read, please consider this book highly recommended. Please know as well that while Dragonwings appears regularly in school curricula and in libraries and bookstores, this novel is part of a series (nine books in total, I think) about several generations of Moon Shadow and Wind Rider’s family. I have never seen these other novels in stores or libraries, but they are widely available on Amazon. If you know a child who has read and liked Dragonwings, he or she might welcome a glimpse into the rest of the series.
So what did I do during my discussions of Dragonwings with my eight year-old student? Let’s see. We examined the chapter in which Wind Rider goes to meet the Dragon King and speculated as to whether Laurence Yep wanted us to think of this chapter as a dream or as an actual event (My student’s take: IT WAS A DREAM. DRAGONS ARE NOT REAL). We talked about risk-taking and safety and the many differences between Moon Shadow’s life in Chinatown and the lives of American children today. I put together a mini-lesson about immigration to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries – we talked about Ellis Island and Angel Island and assimilation and language learning and the challenges of straddling two cultures (my student, by the way, is biracial and the daughter of an immigrant and attends an international school, so these topics were relevant to her). My student is a bit of an aficionado of Greek mythology, so we talked about Icarus and compared his story of flying too close to the sun to Wind Rider’s ambition to return to his true identity as a dragon and to his quest to build. We talked about the idea of having a “secret” identity – perhaps an identity that we ourselves don’t fully understand. And finally, having had good luck with this lesson (though with a different novel) with a bright fourth-grader last summer, I introduced the idea of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. We found that not only does Dragonwings fit the Hero’s Journey archetype, but it actually fits it in two different ways: for the plot line surrounding Moon Shadow and for the plot line surrounding Wind Rider. I think I was more impressed by the dual journeys than my student was, but she definitely understood the archetype and even made her own chart applying the Hero’s Journey to another one of her favorites, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
If you have an elementary school student in your life, please consider Dragonwings and/or the other novels in Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain series this holiday season. These novels bring to life an era of American history that seems very distant to children these days. Kids who have been to San Francisco’s Chinatown will enjoy seeing it come to life on the page, and children of immigrant families will likely recognize Moon Shadow and Wind Rider’s struggles with identity and assimilation as parallel to their own experiences.
And besides, the prostitute is only in it for about two sentences. Two short sentences.