My mom bought me Dragonkeeper by Australian author Carole Wilkinson when it was first published in 2003 by Black Dog Books. Soon after, it was spun into a trilogy. A story about an ancient dragon and a slave-girl-turned-dragon-keeper’s perilous journey to get to their end destination while battling evil necromancers and greedy individuals, in the meantime creating valuable relationships and meaningful friendships; it provided a passageway to China. As I look at the publisher’s page, I see my mother’s handwritten note of the date and place where the book was purchased. Although I was eight years old when I first read it, it is a book that I return to.
Midway through the book, Ping, the book’s heroine, finds herself escaping a near-death experience as Chang’an villagers try to sacrifice her in hopes that the gods would gift them rain for their crops. Just when it seemed as if the gods were not going to answer, Danzi the dragon intervenes by flapping his wings, beating the clouds, creating rain, and allowing Ping to escape. Such moments endure not only for the rich plot but also for how the book portrays ancient Chinese life. Wilkinson even provides a glossary of terms in the back of the book to guide readers, helping those who do not know what jujubes or chinaberry leaves are or when the Han Dynasty took place. She evocatively showcases different Chinese traditions, superstitions, as well as eating and living habits. For example, she offers a hilarious scene in which Danzi tells Ping that she smells, which Ping finds ridiculous since she had taken a bath three months earlier and did not see a need for another one so soon.
Most important, Wilkinson’s book reminds of a time when gender equality was lacking. In showcasing a young girl who was undermined from birth who eventually started to discover her strengths, learn to harness her weaknesses, and ultimately finds out who she was as a young woman, Wilkinson offers young readers hope and a positive role model with the need to persevere. A lot of people were hesitant to take Ping seriously as she was female. As the herbalist-ex-dragon keeper Wang Cao explains, “It has never been a female before.” Baby boys were seen as investments who could grow up to be strong and earn good money. Baby girls, in contrast, were seen as liabilities, quickly married off to other families. Although it is not, for the most part, prevalent in society now, existing older generations in Asia (in Korea, Indonesia, China, for example) can still maintain such views.
For me, Dragonkeeper is one of the must-read books of all time. Although coined as a children’s book, I remember grimacing at the gruesome, violent parts throughout the pages. Definitely not a Disney story, The Dragonkeeper deals with gritty issues like poverty, greed, and death. Wonderfully written, Wilkinson takes dark themes and spins them into a touching ending. With an extensive library at home, there are a few books that I return to again and again, but Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper is one of them.