cover image When Women Were Dragons

When Women Were Dragons

Kelly Barnhill. Doubleday, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-54822-9

Newbery winner Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon) makes her adult debut with a deeply felt exploration of feminism in an alternate fantastical history. Alex Green was a child in Wisconsin in 1955 when over 600,000 American women spontaneously turned into dragons, including her beloved Aunt Marla, and flew away. Alex’s mother brings Marla’s daughter Beatrice to live with them and, like the rest of American society, refuses to even discuss dragons. Alex grows up adoring her younger cousin, and their close friendship assuages the stress she feels from her mother’s pressure to succeed at school, as well as from her chauvinist father. After Alex’s mother dies of cancer, her father moves the girls into a tiny apartment where he offers meager financial support and forbids Alex from shopping at the grocery store, afraid people will think he can’t provide for them. Determined to get to college, Alex plows through high school with the help of a librarian; she also cautions Beatrice over her “dangerous” attraction to images of angry dragons. Meanwhile, flyers promising the truth about the “Great Dragoning” begin to appear around town, and scientists try to determine the cause of the women’s metamorphosis. Barnhill makes palpable Alex’s sense of loss as well as the strictures of mid-century American life. This allegory packs a punch. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (May)