The Dragon and the Unicorn
Nauseating amount of visual detail. Sickeningly heavy-handed writing.
Apparently Lynne Cherry can only write preachy books. Humans are bad. Anything we do is terrible. Okay, maybe not quite, but seriously. You would think that a book with a dragon and a unicorn in it would be more imaginative than this.
It's just basically a regular forest that happens to have a dragon and unicorn living in it. Then some people come, and unicorn who is ancient and unbelievably wise, says, "They are humans. Beware of them." The daughter of the king is kind to animals and when they chop down trees in the forest, she somehow takes the bird nests and puts them in other trees. I'm not sure how the bird nests survive being in a tree that was chopped down without the eggs breaking, but hey.
And in my personal experience, I dug up a tree from my yard (to be re-homed elsewhere, I'm not a savage tree-chopper!) that had a hummingbird nest with eggs in it. I cut the branch with the nest off, without even touching the nest, and left it on a bush less than ten feet away. The mother hummingbird promptly abandoned the eggs. So basically, what I'm saying is, birds are stupid.
Back to the book. The people are building a huge fortress in the forest. In winter, the people want to hunt the unicorn because she's magic. They have her tied up, but her dragon friend comes and burns the ropes to release her. The unicorn and dragon hide from the humans, and then... they kidnap the princess. The little girl, approximately twelve years old, comes into the forest, interested in the unicorn. The unicorn and dragon "lure her into the depths of [the] forest." "By the end of the first week, the king's daughter had lost her desire to return to the castle." It doesn't detail how they must have been keeping her there against her will prior to that change of heart.
So she just lives in the forest, for who knows how long, and then "one day" mentions how her father must be worried about her. The story then changes focus to the king, who has been sending people into the woods to search for her with no luck. "Then one day, after weeks had passed, King Orlando rode his horse to the edge of the woods, dismounted, and walked into the forest." So he's finally getting off his royal butt and looking for his daughter himself. "For several days, King Orlando wandered through the forest." "So the unicorn, with her magic, was drawing him toward" the hidden waterfall where they had been keeping his daughter. And then he just goes, "Wow! This place is so pretty!" And then his daughter comes and says, "Oh my gosh, hi father," but doesn't want to go back to the castle. The king says, "I never realized what peace, silence, and beauty lay within the darkness of the forest. I had no idea that it was so full of life—and so many different kinds of living things!" And then he decides, you know what, we're not going to hunt the unicorn anymore, we're just going to listen to her spoken wisdom. That's her true magic anyway. And the king declares, "We will learn to love and respect this forest, and it will tell us its secrets."
And they decide they're never going to cut down any more trees, or dig any more earth, whatever that means. And it says, "As years passed, houses were built, and the village became a town." How did they increase the size of the village without clearing new land? The fortress is clearly portrayed as in the middle of the forest, surrounded by trees. How could they expand their town? I mean, I know that fortresses and castles are built with a wall around them, and usually the citizens live inside that wall, but you can't say "the village became a town" without explaining where these extra people are going to live. Who knows? And also, what did they build the houses out of? Leaves? The construction of the fortress implies that this takes place in a quasi-medieval era. People built houses out of wood! If your village turns into a town, that doesn't happen without adding more buildings. Which need both space that is flat without trees in it, and wood to build the buildings. I don't know where they're getting that from. Magic? Is it the unicorn's magic that is making everybody able to coexist in harmony? Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Also, the unicorn says, "Many, many years from now a disease will come to humans that only the bark of this [yew] tree can cure. But what if you have cut down all the yew trees?" I can only guess that she must be referring to the 1971 discovery that a compound in yew bark is very effective in chemotherapy treatments for many types of cancer. That chemical is now made with cell culture, so we don't even use trees anymore. And it's not like cancer didn't exist in ancient times. Hippocrates in ancient Greece gave the disease the name "karkinos," meaning "crab" or "crayfish." Cancer is the Latin translation of the word.
So this book is pretty, but you can barely go a page without it preaching about how humans are destroying the natural world. I mean, clearly, that's bad. Like her other book, "The Great Kapok Tree," the message it gives is a good message. Clearly, people shouldn't destroy the natural world. That's why we have things like national parks. But the way that it gets its message across is so didactic that it's skin-crawling. I'm also surprised that this book was written after "The Great Kapok Tree", given the apparent decline in art quality. Maybe it's a stylistic choice. But every single page reminds me of illuminated manuscripts. There's no white space in this book. So not only does it not let up on the heavy-handed message of "humans are destroying the world; we're evil," it also doesn't let up on visual clutter. There's no breathing room in this book. Every page is crawling with vines and flowers, and little tiny inset pictures of people doing things, or part of the description from the text that wasn't shown in the larger picture, and little tiny animals, and peacocks (which wouldn't live in the kind of forest that has yew trees). When I first opened the book, it almost hurt my eyes. The amount of detail crammed into every corner makes it seem like she spent more time on the decorative borders than the central larger pictures. Which is kind of a metaphor for the text as well: it seems like she spent more time on the trivial bits than crafting an interesting story and telling it in a relatable fashion.