A book-loving boy befriends a complacent, poetry-writing dragon and – to please expectant villagers – masterminds his faux joust with an agreeable St. George in Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Holiday House, which first published the wry spin on the St. George legend in 1938, brings out a 75th anniversary edition on September 15.
The Reluctant Dragon has a multi-layered history. In a new introduction to the anniversary edition, children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus explains that in 1938 Helen Gentry, co-founder and staff designer of Holiday House, was searching for possible stories for the company’s fairytale series. She stumbled upon “The Reluctant Dragon” in Dream Days, Grahame’s collection of essays about childhood. Written for adults, the volume was published in 1898, a decade before the appearance of the author’s The Wind in the Willows. Recognizing the short story as a work that would resonate with children, Gentry decided to publish it as a standalone book.
For unknown reasons, Ernest H. Shepard, renowned as the illustrator of the The Wind in the Willows and A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, was not Gentry’s initial choice to illustrate The Reluctant Dragon. She first approached Francis D. Bedford, who had created the art for J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy in 1911. When he declined, Gentry offered Shepard the job and he accepted. Within three months he created the art, including the drawing of the boy reading an oversized book, which soon after the Dragon’s publication became the Holiday House colophon.
The Reluctant Dragon headlined the house’s fall 1938 list and received sparkling reviews, including one from Publishers Weekly, which heralded it as “a typical Holiday House book: original in itself, perfect of its kind, and utterly charming.” It fell out of print in 1944, which Marcus noted was “at the height of wartime paper rationing.” The publisher reprinted the book in 1953 to coincide with the Scribner’s reissue of The Wind in the Willows. Holiday House has released several other reissues throughout the decades, the most recent of which the publisher dropped from its backlist in preparation for the 75th anniversary edition. Since Grahame’s text is in the public domain in the U.S – though Shepard’s illustrations are not – other American publishers have released editions of The Reluctant Dragon, some with abridged texts.
Marking a Milestone
Due out simultaneously in hardcover and trade paperback, the new gift edition features a gold-embossed jacket, different cover art than previous editions, and a new vertical format. “This book has had such wonderful staying power,” said Mary Cash, Holiday House v-p and editor-in-chief. “We just couldn’t let the 75th anniversary pass without celebrating it. The Reluctant Dragon is one of the most hilarious parodies ever. It makes merciless fun of people’s foibles – the same foibles that people have always had and have today.”
Marcus, who drew from biographies of Grahame and Shepard, Gentry’s correspondence with Shepard, and other sources to write the introduction, also expressed admiration for Grahame. “He is a really charming and elegant writer and an old-fashioned storyteller,” he told PW. “He’s a spell-caster from the first sentence and has that warm embrace that great storytellers have for readers. The Reluctant Dragon is a story in the romantic tradition of children’s literature, as is Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ The child sees things as they really are, rather than the adults, who think they know best. It’s an appealing theme from a young reader’s point of view.”
He pointed out another of The Reluctant Dragon’s themes that helps account for the story’s ongoing relevance and appeal to kids. “The idea of the misunderstood monster actually makes this a modern kind of story, in the tradition of King Kong, Ferdinand the bull, and Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant,” Marcus said. “Technology had taken over, nature was no longer a dominant force in the lives of many people, and monsters were no longer to be feared as they were in early literature – they could be kindhearted, like the dragon. And, again, it takes a child to understand where the real power in the world lies.”
Cash also noted the tale’s particular appeal for bibliophiles. “This book is a quintessential story for book lovers,” she said. “The reason that the boy in the story is so wise is that he reads all the time. It’s a timeless story.”
The Reluctant Dragon: 75th Anniversary Edition by Kenneth Grahame, illus. by Ernest H. Shepard. Holiday House, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8234-2820-5; trade paper $6.95 ISBN 978-0-8234-2821-2