Henry Penwhistle, hero of Jennifer Trafton’s hilarious and touching middle-grade novel Henry and the Chalk Dragon, is an artist. His sketchbook, “Sir Henry’s Quest,” is full of creatures, inventions, and adventures. With his outsized imagination, his considerable talent, and a box of chalk, he has also created what he considers to be a true “Work of Art”—a dragon with teeth that look, to Henry, like “silver daggers. Its wings were so wingish they could have lifted Henry’s whole bedroom into the air and carried it to a secret lair on the other side of the sea. This dragon was everything a dragon should be: fierce and fearsome and full of fire.”
Henry’s magnificent dragon is also something of a secret, drawn on the inside of his bedroom door, “for in this room, behind this door, lay a deeper magic and a wilder story than the world had ever seen. Or ever would see—as long as the door stayed shut.”
On the other side of the door, Henry finds himself in a bit of hot water. At school there is to be an art show in honor of National Vegetable Week, and his class has been tasked with drawing a fluffle of identical bunnies to munch on the vegetable art. But Henry doesn’t like drawing bunny clones, and he doesn’t want other kids looking at—and perhaps laughing at—his art. Even his best friend Oscar (“If life were a drinking straw,” Henry thinks, “Oscar would be the paper wrapper soaring off the end”) is allowed only an occasional peek. And so Henry has refused to participate, a position his parents, teachers, and principal don’t understand.
On the morning of the art show, Henry wakes up to discover that the chalk dragon has disappeared from his bedroom door, leaving not so much as a chalky green scale behind. When Henry finally rallies the courage to go downstairs, he finds his parents staring at a huge mess they blame on the family dog. Henry quickly realizes what has happened: his dragon doesn’t want to be kept a secret anymore and has escaped.
Even worse, the dragon can morph at will into any of the drawings from Henry’s sketchbook. Henry manages to shove the dragon-turned-octopus into his lunchbox and takes it to school with him where he can keep an eye on it. And that is the beginning of an eventful day at La Muncha Elementary School: “What if your imagination didn’t carry you away—what if it carried away everyone else? The whole school might be in danger,” Henry thinks.
Henry and the Chalk Dragon is a timely reminder of the power of art and a call to bravery and self-confidence, a book that is both high-adventure and high-concept. While utterly grounded in the world of children, it’s also studded with clever allusions that will appeal to the adult reader. When Henry’s dragon takes a turn as a goofy Abraham Lincoln in an oversized stovepipe hat, he is temporarily vanquished by a volume of Walt Whitman’s poetry provided by Mr. Boolean, the school librarian. Winks upon winks! Parents will also appreciate the fact that the adult characters don’t come off as the usual cartoonish villains of this genre. Here they are merely pitiably grown-up children, with all the cluelessness and forced drudgery that role entails.
Sweet Henry—cataloger of smiles, disciple of his own unique brand of chivalry, and sketcher of fantastic beasts—will easily win the hearts of grade-schoolers and adult readers alike. His interior world is dynamically visceral (“His mother kissed him on the forehead, and the kiss was like the warm footprint of a new story on his brain”), which makes Henry and the Chalk Dragon a remarkably literary work of children’s literature. As Henry’s bus driver explains, “Remember that art does things you don’t expect. Remember that it can hurt people, but remember that it can make them happy as well. Remember that it can break things and stomp on things sometimes, and that’s where chivalry comes in—the good knight in your heart. What kind of art is that good knight brave enough to make?” Apt advice indeed.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.