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In Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic children’s adventure, My Father’s Dragon (1948), nine-year-old Elmer Elevator runs away to rescue a baby dragon held captive by the animals of Wild Island. Elmer must navigate a dense jungle and outwit fearsome adversaries, including tigers, a rhinoceros, and a lion in his expedition and, hopefully, realize his own dream of flying. As Elmer follows his quest, Gannett explores themes of courage, cleverness, and social sensitivity.
My Father’s Dragon received the Newbery Honor Award (1949) and was an ALA Notable Children’s Book Winner (1948). The novel is richly illustrated with whimsical grayscale drawings by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, the author’s stepmother.
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My Father’s Dragon was adapted as a Japanese animated film in 1997, and in 2022 as a Netflix original film animated by Cartoon Saloon, featuring the voices of Whoopi Goldberg, Jacob Tremblay, Judy Greer, and Rita Moreno, among others. Pagination in this guide refers to the 2006 Yearling edition.
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An unnamed son or daughter of Elmer narrates the story, referring to Elmer as simply “my father.” Elmer befriends an old alley cat and invites her home to live with him, but Elmer’s mother angrily refuses to keep the cat. She kicks the cat out and whips Elmer when she discovers him secretly feeding her.
Elmer and the cat remain friends. When Elmer confides his dream of owning an airplane when he grows up, the cat suggests a way Elmer can fly even sooner: by rescuing a baby dragon. The cat, a world traveler, visited Wild Island and discovered that the animals there had captured and enslaved a baby dragon. The animals force the dragon to fly them across a wide river to reach the other side of the island more conveniently. The cat suggests the dragon would take Elmer flying if Elmer was kind to him. Elmer enthusiastically agrees.
A ship is to sail for the Island of Tangerina, the steppingstone to Wild Island, in a week. In the interim, the cat shares her knowledge about Wild Island, and she and Elmer collect a variety of seemingly laughable supplies for Elmer to take in his knapsack, including pink lollipops, colored hair ribbons, magnifying glasses, and chewing gum. Elmer stows away aboard the ship and soon arrives on the Island of Tangerina. From there, he crosses a treacherous line of rocks over the water to Wild Island.
Elmer searches along the beach and finds the mouth of the river, planning to follow it to the dragon. A mouse thinks Elmer’s knapsack is a strange rock. Two tortoises mistake Elmer for Monkey. Two boars discover the tangerine peels Elmer leaves behind and worry that their island is being invaded. Elmer continues to evade discovery.
Thick jungle and swampy terrain force Elmer away from the river to a clearing where seven hungry tigers encircle him. The tigers intend to eat Elmer, but he offers them chewing gum that he declares can be planted to produce more gum. The tigers chew excitedly, and Elmer escapes. A rhinoceros threatens to drown Elmer for disturbing his “weeping pool,” but Elmer gives him a toothbrush and toothpaste to clean his horn, making Rhinoceros feel better, and allowing Elmer to slip away. Elmer meets a lion with a tangled mane who also plans to eat him, until Elmer shows Lion how to brush and braid his mane. Elmer encounters a fierce gorilla who wants to twist Elmer’s arms and get information from him, but Gorilla’s flea bites distract him. Elmer hands out magnifying glasses to six monkeys to help them find Gorilla’s fleas. Meanwhile, the two boars find more evidence convincing them that there is a trespasser on their island. They split up to search for the “invasion” and stop it.
Elmer finds the animals’ river crossing where a rope is fastened to a crank. The other end of the rope is around the dragon’s neck. Animals turn the crank to summon the dragon. Elmer must cross the river to reach the dragon. Seeing an opportunity, Elmer offers lollipops to Crocodile and his many friends. Crocodile licks one lollipop on the riverbank, while Elmer rubber-bands a lollipop to his tail, which another crocodile comes to lick, and so on until Elmer makes a bridge of crocodiles. Elmer crosses the river on the crocodiles’ backs just as the roaring crowd of angry animals, led by the two boars, emerges on the far riverbank. They shout that Elmer has tricked them and is trying to steal their dragon. They want to kill him. They begin crossing the river on Elmer’s crocodile bridge.
The excited baby dragon knows Elmer is there to rescue him and can hardly stand still while Elmer cuts through the thick rope restraining him. The first crocodile finishes his lollipop and swims away from the riverbank, causing the train of crocodiles to follow him and stranding the animals on the crocodiles’ backs in the middle of the river. Elmer and the dragon laugh at the sight. Once Elmer frees the dragon, he climbs on the dragon’s back. The two fly away over the shouting animals and the grinning crocodiles toward the Island of Tangerina for the night, and then ultimately home, never to return to Wild Island.
The dragon and Elmer continue their adventures in Elmer and the Dragon (1950), in which the pair travel back to Elmer’s home. A storm forces them to land on an island where the animal inhabitants are plagued by the deadly disease of curiosity. In the series’ third and final book, The Dragons of Blueland (1951), the dragon’s family is trapped in a cave by men who want to sell them to zoos. The dragon—whose name, Boris, is finally revealed—turns to Elmer for help.