In The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs introduced us to a young princess named Meg, who refuses to be shut up in a tower while princes quest on her behalf. Instead, she sneaks down to save the dragon, and warn the witch and the brigands that the princes are out to get them...and in the process, she befriends the little dragon child, Laddy.
Now, in The Runaway Dragon(2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, middle grade, 285pp), we get to hear what happens to Meg and Laddy next.
When Laddy decides he getting to be too much of a grown-up dragon to hang around a farm, with just one measly bit of gold, he sets off on his own to make his way in the world. Meg, anxious for his safety, goes off to find him, accompanied not just by the men-at-arms her father insists on, but by her friends from the first book--Cam, the young palace gardener, Dilly, her maid-in-waiting, and Lex, a young wizard with a penchant for hot chocolate.
And a wild and wonderful quest awaits them, through a dark wood haunted by the tropes of fairy tales past--the diminutive and surly guide, the white stage, the damsel with magically growing hair, and the giant...All but one of the men-at-arms are ensnared by the spell of the stag, and Cam, Dilly, the remaining young soldier, and the hair-endowed damsel are kidnapped by the giant and taken home for his little giant girl to play with. But how can Meg and Lex save them, when they find themselves prisoners of the wicked would-be empress of the dark castle? And what of young Laddy? Will he still want to be friends with Meg, now he has a hoard of his own?
It is a most entertaining read, one I'd recommend in a second to anyone with a fondness for fairy tales and plucky girls. Meg might not be that great at magic (although she's good at raising sneezing fits and the most charming magical scarf I've ever read about), and she's still working on her swordsmanship, but she is tough, and smart, and determined, persevering in the face of difficulties. In short, a true hero.
And Coombs' writing is sharp and funny, and interesting--it's clear that she's having fun with her words, and that makes it fun for the reader too! It's not the most wildly original plot, described in its bare bones, but what Coombs does with her story, and its characters, makes for a fresh and fast read. (I especially liked the scenes in which the prisoners of the giant are forced to be dolls for the little (big) girl. Guess whose super-long, magical hair is a big hit).
It's not necessary to have read the first book first, although it makes this one more engaging--it is always nice to be reunited with characters that one likes. There is some scariness in the dark castle, but nothing gory or drastically violent. There are hints of possible future love, but nothing is made explicit. The spacing of the lines is generous and easy on the eye (without overdoing the wide margin bit), and the vocabulary is neither patronizingly simple nor overly erudite. In short, middle-grade at its most perfect middle!
To steal Mother Reader's idea of pairing books with sundry related items, this would be an excellent book to pair with fencing lessons, so your own girl can cast off gender stereotypes and become a heroine-in-training! But even without the fencing lessons, it would make a great present.
The Runaway Dragon has been nominated for the Cybils, who will (if I did it right) receive any commission made from sales through my Amazon links (which is not as unselfish as it might sound, because I live in a state where I can't do it for myself!).