Review: Making Your Human Smarter

“But when you’ve ridden a dragon, had lunch with Nessie, and fought monsters, it would take more than a fussy hotel clerk to scare me away. I gave him my best imitation of Miss Drake’s glare.” page 249

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter (Dragon’s Guide #2) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrations by Mary Grandpre.
Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 296 pages + exerpt.
Lexile: 790L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 9.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.

Miss Drake’s training of her pet human is starting to pay off. Winnie has been accepted into the local magical school and seems like she is starting to enjoy life. Miss Drake and her magical friends will take any precaution to keep her beloved pet from harm. But Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet!

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – the last book was good but not overly compelling. One of my biggest concerns was if the series was sustainable. The idea of a dragon and her pet human is a fun take on a fantasy trope, but not enough for a whole series.

Yep and Ryder get around that in two ways for this second book. First, this is a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall I generally prefer books written in the third person or with a single narrator. The authors here make it bearable several ways: clear plot reasons necessitate the two voices; rather than always alternating chapters, the two trade off as needed (headers indicate the switch); our narrators may share many common events, but generally have distinct voices.

The voices sometimes get muddled, like when Winnie relays tidbits about the history of Spriggs in what seems more like Ms. Drake’s voice. Ms. Drake is still primary – her voice both begins and ends the story. But there was something to be said for seeing Winnie’s view. The bits about how each considered the other their beloved pet were surprisingly amusing – the gag did not wear as thin as expected, perhaps because so much else was happening.

The second way our authors keep things fresh is framing it almost as a school story. Having moved often, Winnie is used to being the new kid at school, but not used to having magical classmates. Her adapting to the magical hijinks of Spriggs Academy occupies most of the first half of the story, which takes place shortly before school starts until Christmas.

Real tension comes from Winnie’s evil grandfather Jarvis who wants to raise her himself, but was thwarted in his initial plot when Great-Aunt Amelia bequeathed them her estate. I had concerns that this aspect would be problematic, but it was sensitively treated and appropriately resolved. Various storylines do interact – for example, when Winnie starts at Spriggs she forgets that she is a legacy and one of the wealthy students, since her grandfather disowned her mother when her parents married.

Winnie almost gives me a Pollyanna vibe, not that she is overly saccharine, but in how that she can turn any situation around and find a way to show the hidden softness of curmudgeons. Her talent for, and interest in, art comes up several times but I found her emotional intelligence more of a talent.

I appreciate that Yep and Ryder made their heroine someone who isn’t particularly smart or gifted or exceptional. Though she might feel important to the reader and to her family, she doesn’t suddenly discover magical talents, it’s subtly shown that all her moving has left her academically behind her peers, and she isn’t otherwise any sort of Chosen One.

I enjoy magical stories that either avoid that trope or somehow turn it around. Mieville, Zhao, and sometimes Milford do this beautifully (following the links could be major spoilers, which is why I didn’t mention titles). Jones, Papademetriou, and Inui take a different approach with ordinary kids running into magic during everyday life. But here Yep and Ryder immerse an ordinary heroine in a fantastical world.

The majority of magical references were European, with occasional mentions of non-white magic. We were especially delighted when Nanaue (The Shark King) made a brief appearance. Though white, the inclusion of Vasilisa from less commonly known Russian folklore also deserves mention.

It wasn’t perfect though. When non-white characters were introduced they were more likely to be described (a classic error). Also, Winnie mentions a school fundraiser where “all the money we raised by selling handmade crafts and antiques was going to help sick children in Africa” – very white savior. At the same time, the principal of Spriggs is clearly mentioned as a Black woman (although without the capital), so thoughtful efforts were being made at the same time as the missteps.

On balance, a diverse-adjacent read.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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