Dragons - those mythical, fire-breathing beasts - have always had a place in folklore, but now they're on the contemporary children's literature scene to battle dinosaurs for a place in the hearts and on the bookshelves of young readers. Traditionally, dragons of Asia were helpful, bringing wealth and good luck, and European dragons were dangerous, representing evils in the world.
Today's dragons rarely fit these traditional molds. They are more apt to be kind, friendly, and maybe a bit misunderstood. The news from these picture books is that dragons are back, and, for the most part, the dragons and the books are good.
THE DRAGONS ARE SINGING TONIGHT, by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Peter Sis (Greenwillow Books, ages 4 and up, $15). Jack Prelutsky, author of more than 30 books of verse, has written 17 dragon poems that get better with each reading. These engaging, funny, and touching poems will delight readers with rhyme, rhythm, and wonderful words. Kudos for word choices such as ``malevolent,'' ``disconsolate,'' and ``obeisance,'' which add texture and intelligence to fanciful vignettes of dragon life.
In addition to poetic wizardry, much of this book's appeal must be credited to Peter Sis's inventive and evocative illustrations. Each covers a double page and will hold readers spellbound studying fine details.
Peter Sis fans will also want to check out ``Komodo!'' a book he both wrote and illustrated (Greenwillow Books, ages 4 and up, $15). Brief, straightforward text and intriguing watercolor and pen-and-ink pictures create an agreeable blend of fact and fantasy. In this modern adventure story, caring parents take their dragon-loving son - and readers - on an imaginative journey to see a real dragon: the monitor lizard on the Indonesian island of Komodo. Although the adults are disappointed, the boy has a supremely satisfying time.
THE MINSTREL AND THE DRAGON PUP, by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark (Candlewick Press, ages 5 and up, $16.95). English author Rosemary Sutcliff produced more than 30 books, novels and retellings of familiar stories, before her death last year; this is one of her last and perhaps most charming. This gentle, original tale, which reads like a traditional legend, is a heart-warming story of a minstrel whose songs flow more easily after he adopts a dragon pup. When Lucky the dragon is stolen by a greedy showman, the minstrel's search takes him throughout the kingdom and finally to the royal palace for a happy ending.
Soft, oil-pastel illustrations and framed-border designs suggest a long-ago time of minstrels, kings, and dragons.
THE GOOD-FOR-SOMETHING DRAGON, by Judith Ross Enderle and Stephanie Gordon Tessler, illustrated by Les Gray (Boyds Mills Press, ages 5 to 8, $14.95). Though set in a castle, readers will find the plight of young James very contemporary. He's at odds with his father about keeping a pet. Sir Simon declares that a castle is no place for a dragon. The cook and stableman agree that baby dragon Ashley is ``just a good-for-nothing dragon.'' James has only three days to prove otherwise.
Things look grim for James and Ashley until a giant threatens the castle, and little Ashley saves the day.
Alliterative phrases - ``sighed his saddest sigh'' and ``boar broth bubbles'' - make this a fun read-aloud story. Fresh illustrations playfully pick up the humor and add visual surprises that make this a delightful book.
THE DRAGON'S PEARL, retold by Julie Lawson, illustrated by Paul Morin (Clarion Books, ages 5 to 9, $15.95). Lush, textured oil paintings bring a cinematic quality to the retelling of this venerable Chinese tale. Impoverished Xiao Sheng finds a magic pearl that brings good fortune to him and his mother, until robbers try to steal it. To protect the pearl, the boy pops it in his month and accidentally swallows it. This changes him into a life-giving water dragon who dwells forever in the river and gives rain to his drought-plagued village.
This tale celebrating the Chinese dragon contains elements common to many traditional stories: gods, magic, and a transforming hero. The accuracy of the details, the lyrical text, and splendid illustrations make ``The Dragon's Pearl'' well worth considering.
DRAGONS: TRUTH, MYTH, AND LEGEND, by David Passes, illustrated by Wayne Anderson (Artists & Writers Guild Books, ages 8 and up, $14.95). Elaborately illustrated, this informative book features ferocious beasts in 11 ancient myths.
Recording dragon lore from as far back as 4,000 years ago, this collection includes stories and information from around the world.
Dragon aficionados curious about the dragon worshipped by Algonquin Indians of North America (the Piasa), the double-headed African dragon (Amphisbaena), or the white Japanese dragon (O-Gon-Cho) will find answers here.
The material is well-researched, but parents may want to know that many of the traditional tales are violent, and the book accurately depicts much of the bloodshed.