I took part in another Tandem Collective readalong last week – this time for Kelly Barnhill’s first YA novel, When Women Were Dragons.
A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman’s place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. • The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and
watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.
In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.
My thoughts: first up, I love the cover, all those lush greens and purples, the hint of scales and then that eye in the bottom left corner, hinting at hidden things and the mystery within.
Obviously being published right now when reproductive rights in the US are at risk makes a book about women – wives and mothers all, as the book says, spontaneously turning into giant fire breathing mythic beasts, breaking free of society’s confines, feels very prescient. As the law seeks to repress women yet again, an age old conflict, the idea of one of the oldest creatures in our collective folklore being within women is very intriguing. I wouldn’t mind being a dragon sometimes.
This is an incredibly moving book, I cried a few times, and very honest. Alex is a wonderful protagonist, my heart really ached for her as she loses her aunt, her mum, her home and struggles to get by, taking so much care of her sister Beatrice.
I was angry with her stupid dad and wanted a dragon to eat him – what a terrible man, so weak and cruel. Who in their right mind treats any child the way he does. He’s pathetic.
I loved librarian Mrs Gyzinska, she was amazing, what an incredible woman, total hero. Her support of Alex and Bea is so important to Alex’s survival.
Overall I thought this was a powerful, timely book about women, their strength and courage, about change and hope. I really enjoyed it once I got into the story, the use of extracts from various documents got a bit grating at times – I cared more about the characters.
I’ve posted the challenges from the readalong below – if you read the book, maybe you’d like to share your thoughts inspired by these starters.