I picked up Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke (translated by Anthea Bell) (recommended for children ages 9 to 12) after running across it in the children's literature section. Thought I'd check out a new author of a children's fantasy, since the story blurb on the back cover seemed interesting:
With Ben and Sorrel on board, Firedrake sets out in search of the mythical place where dragons can live in peace forever. Along the way, the three friends encounter fantastic creatures, surprising courage - and one ruthless villian determined to end their quest. Only a secret destiny can save the dragons in this enchanting adventure about the true meaning of home.
Unfortunately, from the beginning, humans are the bad guys, as we learn in Chapter 1, "Bad News". Rat tells Firedrake humans are coming to the place where the dragons live. In Chapter 2, "A Meeting in the Rain", Firedrake takes Rat to tell Slatebeard, a dragon elder, the news. Slatebeard has Rat tell everyone what she saw and heard:
"Humans are coming!" she cried. "They've woken their machines and fed them and sent them on their way. They're already eating a path through the mountains only two days' journey from here. The fairies will hold them at bay for a while, but they'll get here some time or other - because it's this valley of yours they're heading toward." (pp. 8-9)
Later in the same chapter:
"Why would they want to come here? Surely they have all they want where they are."
"Humans never have all they want," replied Rat. (p. 10)
And some more:
"For some of you," the old dragon continued, "it will be the first time, but many of us have had to flee from human beings before. Although now it will be extremely difficult to find a place that doesn't belong to them." Slatebeard shook his head sadly. "It seems to me there are more and more humans with every new moon."
"Yes, they're all over the place," said the dragon who had been mocking Sorrel a moment ago. "It's only when I fly over the sea that I don't see their lights beneath me."
"Then we must just try living in harmony with them," suggested another dragon.
But Slatebeard shook his head. "No," he said. "No one can live in harmony with human beings." (p.13)
I could pick out more quotes from Chapter 2, but I think you can get the point with these selections...
In Chapter 4, "A Big City and a Small Human Being", at the beginning of the journey to find the place where the dragons can live safe from humans, Firedrake and Sorrel are looking for Rat's cousin, but come across a small human boy named Ben, first. They find Rat's cousin, Gilbert, in Chapter 5, "Gilbert the Ship's Rat". Gilbert provides a map to help them on the journey. He also gives them a bit of advice on how to proceed:
Gilbert Graytail leaned forward and traced an invisible line on the globe. "By my reckoning you journey out to go something like this: a fair stretch south first, then turn east." He scratched his ear. "Yes. Yes, that's it. I think the southern route is best. The humans are at war with one another again in the north [ed. - is this a fictional war, or is it supposed to be a real one? Since Gilbert the Ship's Rat uses a laptop, it's not a historic conflict...]. And I've heard some very nasty stories about a giant." (p. 41)
Ignoring the "humans are violent and bad" overtones, the basic storyline is fine for a children's book, but the story seemed to drag along - usually, I would have flown through a children's book of 523 pages (like I just did recently with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that weighs in at 784 pages), but I sometimes felt very unmotivated to continue reading - I finally finished it because I knew I was soon to get my copy of Harry Potter 7 in the mail... The language doesn't seem to flow nicely and seems awkward at times, but that, I'm sure, has to do with the translation into English from German. I don't care for a couple of the characters. They are rude and resort to frequent name-calling ("dimwit", "fat little ratty bum", "stuck-up rat", "revolting stinkhorns", "fur-face", "little titch", "stupid creature"). That's not the kind of example I want set for students - "good guy" characters resorting to calling names instead of getting at the source of a disagreement through honest debate.
When our adventurers are close to their goal, they meet another brownie, except, unlike Sorrel, this one has four arms, not two. When relating his quest to this new brownie, the author lets Firedrake get in one more jab at humans, saying:
"We come from a valley faraway to the northwest, a place where my kind went many hundreds of years ago when human beings were beginning to take over the world. Now they are reaching out their greedy hands to steal our valley, too, and we must find a new home."
Overall, I cannot recommend Dragon Rider, and although I purchased this book, I won't be using it for a read-aloud, and I won't be putting it out in a classroom library - I might just sell it to a used book store and be done with it (although I don't like this book, I have a problem with throwing books away...)