Caroline McAlister is the author of the new children's picture book John Ronald's Dragons: A J.R.R. Tolkien Story. She also has written Holy Mole! and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief. She teaches English at Guilford College, and she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for John Ronald's Dragons, and do you think kids would need to have read Tolkien's work to appreciate your book?
A: I teach at English at Guilford College and I got the opportunity to teach a Jan term class on the Oxford fantasy writers and take students to Oxford. I did a lot of research for the course, including reading Tolkien's essay in defense of fantasy, "On Fairy Stories."
In that essay Tolkien describes how he desired dragons as a young child. That got me thinking about a picture book that would connect the child who loved dragons to the man who wrote books about them.
I don't think that kids need to have read Tolkien to understand John Ronald's Dragons. The book is about the power of the imagination and the pleasures of losing oneself in imaginary worlds. It is meant to prepare students to read Tolkien.
Q: Can you say more about the kind of research you needed to do to write the book, and did you find anything that especially surprised you?
A: As I mentioned above, it was important to read primary sources such as Tolkien's scholarly essays about fantasy and about Beowulf. I also enjoyed reading Tolkien's beautiful letters, and finally I was lucky to get the opportunity to go to Oxford.
There are little details in the book like the gargoyles that come from field research, from actually visiting Oxford, and the illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, did a great deal of travel to do visual research.
Q: What do you think Eliza Wheeler's illustrations add to the book?
A: They add everything!
I love her palette which captures the world of the Shire and connects it to Sarehole. She did a great job contrasting the colors of the shire with the horrors of the trenches.
She also was so imaginative in hiding dragons in all of the pictures. And I love the William Morris style end papers. She really took the assignment and ran with it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this story?
A: I hope that readers will learn to love Tolkien, the geeky kid who loved dragons and made up imaginary languages. I hope readers will understand how important the devastation of World War 1 was to his development of fantasy worlds. Most importantly, I hope people will value the imaginary, the impractical, the fantastical.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a book about C.S. Lewis and his brother coming out. I am working on a book about a Japanese-American artist and her experience in the prison camps.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am heading to Hollins University for the summer where I am studying to get an MFA in writing for children. Their program is a great opportunity for writers and illustrators.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb