Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised. This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.
Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food…. His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room. The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend.
The parents too are individuals. I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership. Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.
The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration. The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green.
These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic. They are light. They are ridiculous. But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs. I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.
Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.
Dragonbreath, Book 1. 2009.
Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean. Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent. And Wendell is coming too. Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.
Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs. 2010.
Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom. A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way. They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind. Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her. Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.
Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai.
Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character. Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision. I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl. It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.
Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener. 2010.
The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues. Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria. He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly. Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy. The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha. Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes. But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.
Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster. 2011.
In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats. While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly. Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry. Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel. I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.
Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts. 2011.
Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special. Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy. Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house. But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone. Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs…. And what is that in the doorway!? I do not handle horror books well. I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric. There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists.
I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible. I currently have book 6 out from the library. Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series. So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6. That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:
These are a lot of fun. They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic. Read them. Try one. You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.
Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a
but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to
This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.
Intended audience: Ages 8-12.
Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.