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“Dealing with Dragons,” “The Last Castaways”

by Payal Kapadia

“Dealing with Dragons,” Patricia C. Wrede, Magic Carpet; 2002; 228 pp.

Cimorene is a princess — if you can call her one.

She doesn’t have hair the color of flax; she doesn’t enjoy embroidery or dancing, or any of those things that your everyday princess is supposed to do. In fact, she finds the whole business of being a princess rather boring. Am I about to tell you there’s no prince either? You guessed it. There is no prince — at least not a handsome knight on a white stallion.

But there is a dragon. If you’re expecting him to carry a feebly protesting Cimorene off to his cave, though, you’ve got another thing coming. The dragon in question is a female and it is Cimorene who goes seeking out this dragon in hope of finding a life more exciting than a princess’s.

This is the first of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, a set of four books about an unorthodox princess, fire-breathing dragons, and wizards so pesky you’d like to turn them into frogs. The simple yet lively narrative is a bit short on twists and turns, but refreshingly different from those tales of yore. Girl readers will love this robust, modern take on the swooning princess who spends all her hours dreaming of being rescued by some prince. And even for boys who don’t usually like reading about girls, Cimorene’s a heroine to trump any hero.

She can’t bring herself to lead a “happily ever after” life with a prince who can barely make conversation. Instead, she runs away and finds herself a dragon called Kazul. She’d rather be cleaning out Kazul’s labyrinthine home and treasure-laden dungeons, but she’s continually pestered by fumbling royals who hope to win her hand in marriage by battling her dragon.

Just when Cimorene thinks she’s seen the last of them, a pair of wizards come snooping around dragon land. They’re in search of something — and what they’ve found could alter the destiny of all dragons. Foul play is about, and Cimorene must stop the wizards before it’s too late. Of course, that’s not what princesses are supposed to do, but who cares?

It’s about time we had a princess who can think for herself. Don’t be guided by what you’re supposed to do, as this unconventional fantasy tells you — instead, follow your heart, break some of the rules (if not all of them) and say “yeah!” to girl-power.

A warm thank you to Miles Gordenker of the American School in Japan for recommending this book. For children 9-12 years. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles were first published in the early 1990s, but went out of print. Resurrected by popular demand last year, the first two are out in paperback and available at online book stores. The last two will be out in spring 2003.

“The Last Castaways,” Harry Horse, Puffin Books; April 2003; 86 pp.

Close on the heels of three rollicking adventures comes this one — a compact read that can easily be devoured in one sitting. Quirkily illustrated and told, “The Last Castaways” is a real treat, largely in the form of letters from an intrepid grandfather to his grandchild.

In the previous books in this series, the two incredibly unfortunate heroes, Grandfather and his talking dog, Roo, have already wreaked havoc on their way to the North Pole; failed miserably at prospecting for gold; and made a real mess of a Wild West sojourn. Now, it seems, only the ocean is left for them to conquer — or go adrift on.

This is a hilarious account of the world’s most hopeless seafarers. Grandfather attracts adventure (read trouble) faster than a picnic does ants, and Roo is remarkably adept at nothing. There’s nothing funnier than reading about how this duo sets out on a ship called the Unsinkable to the Forgotten Sea in search of a fortune in codfish. Needless to say, it’s not smooth sailing.

Grandfather gets seasick, and then he mistakes his giant catch of codfish for a sign that things are taking a turn for the better. In fact, things are taking a decided turn for the worse. The ship is barreling toward a rocky outcrop in the ocean, Roo takes the wheel and the Unsinkable begins to sink after bashing into the rocks. Grandfather and Roo abandon the ship only to get washed up on to a godforsaken island with (of all the things they could have salvaged), a golf trolley, Roo’s plastic walrus Poopy, and the best reading material two marooned mariners could ask for: a copy of “Robinson Crusoe.”

Grandfather discovers that a dog isn’t man’s best friend — it’s the other way around. Roo spends all his time chasing birds, burying crabs and demanding to be taken home (if only it were that easy). Grandfather’s too busy to answer — after all, someone’s got to build a storm shelter, forage for food and design an escape raft. How do the two get off the island? Suffice it to say that they do — right after which Roo starts planning another adventure for them to bungle up.