Dragonbreath, by Ursula Vernon (Dial, 147 generously fonted and illustrated pages, young middle grade)
Danny's a lot like any other grade school kid--trying to live up to his parents' expectations, trying to defend his lunch from the school bully, trying to write a report on "the ocean" on his fifteen minute bus ride. But, since Danny is a dragon, attending a school for reptiles and amphibians, things are a little different. Mom and Dad breathe fire, Danny can only produce ashy belches. The bully is a vicious komodo dragon. And when he has to re-write his report, he turns to Cousin Edward for help. Cousin Edward is a sea serpent.
So Edward takes Danny and his best friend, a charmingly nerdy iguana named Wendell, down into the ocean. Provided with "breath mints," the two friends don't have to worry about breathing underwater as they explore a coral reef, a shipwreck, and descend into the dark depths--where danger (!) awaits...
Told with copious illustrations (in shades of green and black), with interludes of comic book style sections, this is a great independent read for a seven or eight year old, and a great read aloud for a younger child. It's extremely entertaining for the adult whose reading it out loud, too, although this example perhaps resonated more with me than with my children:
"Mrs. Dragonbreath looked up from her coffee, focused her eyes with some difficulty, and hissed like a cobra. (Cobras are also traditionally not morning people)." (p 12).
I was somewhat surprised that, after some time following Danny through the travails of school life, the book took an educational twist--although the undersea adventures are exciting, they have a more than somewhat "let's all learn about the ocean" feel. Which is fine, and gives added value, although it seems to me that most children these days know all the species of shark before they give up sippy cups. I don't think my kids noticed this aspect of the book at all. They were too busy being engrossed in Danny and Wendell's adventures.
The point of view shifts midway from Danny--eager and overconfident--to Wendell, anxious and overthinking. I love Wendell.
"Wendell pawed the last of the sea cucumber's guts out of he ears. "What? You want even weirder fish? It wasn't enough getting nearly eaten by a shark and barfed on by a- sea - slug- thing-"
"Actually, sea slugs are something else again," said Edward helpfully. "That was a sea cucumber, which is an invertebrate--"
"I don't care!" Wendell tried to throw his hands in the air, realized too late that he was underwater, and flailed rather aimlessly instead. Danny had to grab his tail to haul him back down to the reef. "There could be all kinds of monsters down there!"
"Well, of course there could be," said Danny. "What's wrong with that?" (p 62)
I am very much looking forward to the next Dragonbreath adventure--Attack of the Ninja Frogs. So are my boys. (Coming February, 2010. Sigh. I want it now! Not so much for myself, but because it makes me so happy to see my boys so enthralled by a book...)
Other reviews can be found at The HappyNappyBookseller, Pink Me, 100 Scope Notes, A Year of Reading, and Kid's Lit.