Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon: Time to Un-Banish the Book for Lighthearted Fun and Important Lessons


Berk.  “The only problem is the pests.”  Right?

In Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon, first in a series of “memoirs” by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, dragons are not pests; they’re pets, cat-like creatures about the size of leopards with the same duties as hunting falcons.  Sorry, all.  No one’s riding Toothless.  The only thing remarkable about Toothless, a Common or Garden dragon (who knows where DreamWorks got the idea for a Night Fury), is his very, very small size (Terrible Terror-sized maybe).

Hiccup is still the sarcastic only son of Chief Stoick the Vast.  He is still an unlikely hero, who doesn’t look or act like a “proper” Viking should.  His best friend is the allergy-ridden Fishlegs, also not likely to be nominated most likely to succeed.  Snotlout is there, arrogant, but bullying and now Hiccup’s cousin with designs for the chieftainship.  He does not reconcile with Hiccup by the end of the book.  Hiccup would be left without a rival for the remainder of the series if he did.

Stoick and Hiccup’s relationship is still rocky because Stoick clings to the traditional Viking way, and Hiccup is “a talking fishbone,” but Gobber is no go-between, and the restoration of a loving father-son relationship takes back-seat to Hiccup’s unlikely heroism in the book’s plot.

How to Train Your Dragon is a boys’ book through and through.  You will find no Astrid or Ruffnut.  Sad, I know, but I’m a girl, and I still enjoyed it.

For fans of the movie, reading through the book and matching the bits of scrap fabric from which DreamWorks’ quilt is made is a fun challenge.  Many of the pieces are there, but they aren’t always what they seem.  It’s a brilliant adaptation in that way.  Moviemakers might be interested in the book for the same challenge.

Independently of the movie or beside it, the book is enjoyable.  It’s lighthearted in the main, lighter than the film, illustrated with childish drawings (some are better than others) and splattered with… ink? blood?  It’s humorous, though relies more on hyperbole, the unexpected, undergarments, and bodily functions than the sarcasm of the film.

The film retained the books’ main message: that you needn’t be the strongest or loudest or an adult to win friends and fight enemies, that cleverness and diplomacy and understanding can conquer monsters, that what seems heartless (dragons and people) may be only misunderstood.

I have my doubts about Cowell’s writing style.  It did not seem entirely cohesive.  Sometimes it seemed to be Hiccup’s first person voice, sometimes a close third, and sometimes an omniscient third, but I think that most readers may not even notice in the exciting plot, jokes, scattered drawings, plentiful capitals, and inkblots.

I appreciate the nods to Viking culture, though I do think that her representation is probably highly stereotyped.  Still, the presence of Thor, seers, Hiberno-Saxon designs, and Beowulf all add to the setting.

This is definitely a book to recommend to the boy who feels like he doesn’t fit in, the boy outside of the popular crowd, the boy who likes adventure, the boy of average boy humor, maybe even the boy who might be a reluctant reader (cinematic adaptation ought to help that, right?).

And yeah, the rest of us can enjoy it too.


Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company, or Cressida Cowell.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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