Merlin and the Dragons, by Jane Yolen and Li Ming (Cobblehill Books, 1995)

There’s a phrase I reserve for rare treasures like this book. “Oooooooooo, PRETTY!” Anyone who knows me knows to just back away, and give me whatever it is I want, when they hear that particular phrase. It means trouble. It means that I’ve found something so niftykeen or goshwow (real words, I assure you) that I must have. Ask my wife. She can tell you how that phrase is the harbinger for any number of things now in my possession: stuffed paisley Cthulhu dolls…a lava lamp… an eighteen-inch-tall kitsune figure… or anything by Brian Froud.

Enter Merlin and the Dragons, a book by Jane Yolen and Li Ming. When that one arrived in the mail, it was “Ooooooooo PRETTY!” and off I went to add it to my collection of treasures.

Let me clarify. Jane Yolen is the author. You’d probably have to look for the book under her name. Li Ming is the artist. And his work is fully half the reason that this is a treasure worth savoring. Now, if you’ve been poking around this site for long, and have no idea who Jane Yolen is, shame on you. Trust me, we can educate you.

Jane Yolen is an extraordinarily talented author and folklorist who’s written, literally, hundreds of books in a variety of fields, and she’s best known for her children’s books, one of which, Owl Moon, won the Caldecott Medal. It’s hard to look in any young adult section of a bookstore and not find at least some of her work. Quite simply, she’s one of the preeminent authors in her field.

Li Ming, at the time of this book’s release, was almost unknown. Before immigrating to the United States in 1993, he spent several years working as an artist at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, in his native China. The cover bio says that this was his first book. I hope it’s not his last.

Now that we’ve gotten past the obligatory bios and statistics, we can get down to business. Why is this book so beautiful? Because it’s art. Pure art. The story itself is simple: A young King Arthur, having only recently achieved the throne of England after some sophisticated sword-and-stone shenanigans, turns to Merlin, plagued by doubt. And Merlin tells the young king a story.

A story about a young Welsh boy named Emrys. Fatherless, lonely, and full of imagination and dreams. A unique child in his own right, son of a princess, grandson of a king, and destined for something greater. A boy who, armed with the teachings of an old wise man, and his own dreams, achieved fame and notoriety just for predicting an eclipse. “Demon-spawn,” they called him.

This is a story about that boy, Emrys. And the evil High King of England, a man named Vortigern. And a tower that refused to be built. And the magicians who said that only the blood of a demon-spawned child would allow the tower to be built and remain standing. And about the secret that truly lay under the tower, a secret which Emrys’ dreams had warned him of.

Trust me, there’s more. The dragons of the title, the fate of a king, the fulfillment of a prophecy, and the creation of a legacy. But it’s an old story, really. Legend, in fact. You might recognize it as being part of the Arthurian Mythos. And we can all guess who Emrys grows up to become … can’t we?

I’m not telling. It may be an old story, but it’s still new to someone. And I do hate to spoil the surprise. So let’s move on.

What can I say? Yolen knows how to tell a story. This is the perfect bedtime story. With a certain economy of words, highly descriptive narration, and believable characters that still manage to evoke the legends that they’re derived from, the story is a masterpiece in the telling. It sings in the reading, and a full-out vocal rendition of this story is a treat. Read this one when you or your kids are old enough to appreciate what it’s like to want to find your place in the world, and to savor it when you do.

The art, however, is the true selling point of this volume. Every page is lavishly illustrated (ever notice how often those two words are used together?) with full-color paintings that depict the story as it progresses. And when I say art, I mean that any one of these pages would easily make a perfect painting or print or poster on its own. The detail is exquisite, right down to the scales on the dragons, their fiery breath, the eyes of a young king, and the feathers on an owl. Arthur is innocent and childlike, Vortigern exudes a strange paternal quality despite his evil nature, Merlin wreathes himself in wisdom and mystique, young Emrys has a dreamlike, ethereal feel, and the dragons are purely majestic.

This is why this book earns an “Ooooooo PRETTY!” from me. Because there are children’s books … and then there are books for all ages that just happen to be marketed for children. This is the latter. You can leave this on your coffeetable, or next to your child’s bed, and be equally proud either way.You’ll probably have to look for this one in the children’s section, or ask for it. It’s oversized, and may not be the easiest one in the world to find.

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