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Book Review and Interview: The Pet Dragon by Christoph Niemann

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Lately it seems I'm on a bit of a streak of finding outstanding children's books. Let's keep the streak alive with The Pet Dragon by Christoph Niemann.

Lin is a young Chinese girl who is one day given the gift of a baby dragon. When the dragon disappears, Lin heads out on a quest to find her friend the dragon… and we get to go too!

Niemann has taken a small set of Chinese characters and merged them with amazing illustrations so you not only get a fun story to read, but learn something about Chinese language along the way. Each page of the story shows one or more characters in the context of the story and with a small legend along the bottom so you can learn the meaning of each of them.

I read this book with my two girls, one age 3 and the other age 7. Each took something different away from the experience. My youngest daughter was fascinated by the story and the beautiful artwork, but really didn't take notice of the characters. My oldest daughter immediately saw how the characters were worked in and was fascinated by not only the artwork and the story, but the deeper meaning.

Mr. Niemann works as an illustrator for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Magazine. This is his second children's picture book, the first being The Police Cloud. Prior to that, he also illustrated The Boy with Two Belly Buttons, which was written by Stephen J. Dubner.

He and his family just recently moved to Berlin, Germany, and are adjusting to their new surroundings. Mr. Niemann was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail for this review.

Q: Are you doing anything special to spread the word to schools and libraries about this book? I have an aunt who helps run several libraries near where I live and a sister who is a first grade teacher – both of whom would love your book.

A: So far I have only been sending out copies to a few magazines and websites, but haven't targeted schools and libraries in particular. I am most aware of how crucial those are for the success of such a book, but haven't had the right contacts yet.

Q: You now have two children's books under your belt that you've both written and illustrated, and another book you illustrated for Stephen Dubner. Do you have any more children's books on the horizon?

A: I have a number of ideas that I am rather fond of, but the one that is actually taking shape right now is about the New York subway. Stylistically I want to work in a similar style as I did for the NY Times blog, but unlike that post, I will have to rework the story so it is really about the angle of the children.

Q: Do you have any favorite authors that you like to share with your boys? Or any current favorite books?

A: These days Gustav (who just turned 4) is obsessed with Freight Train, by Donald Crews, I Am Invited to a Party by Mo Willems, and Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss. Arthur (age 6) is getting interested in Grimm's Fairy Tales, which I enjoy reading to him, even though I have to admit they are very dark at times. Arthur's favorite book of course is Transit Maps of the World (by Mark Ovenden and Mike Ashworth), a wonderful book.

Q: How are you enjoying living in Berlin? How does it compare to living in New York?

A: What I love about Berlin: In August it is not 110 degrees 24/7 like in NY. It's ridiculously more affordable to buy good food at the supermarket. And the kids have much more space to run around. What I miss about NY: You can't get iced coffee at every corner. The Apple store. But most I of course miss my VERY dear friends. (He was on a plane to New York to visit some of his favorite people and places as he responded to these questions.)

Q: And lastly, any words of advice for budding children's book authors or illustrators?

A: I am very excited to have a couple of books out there, and am most aware of how much luck (apart from the sweat) that took. I think it is simply impossible to "plan" on being a successful children's book illustrator, and I would advice to aim broadly and look beyond children's books in terms of illustration (as well as in terms of writing.) Working as an editorial illustrator has taught me a lot of discipline regarding deadlines as well as regarding concepts. Without this training I think I would have been utterly lost trying to fill 36 pages with a cohesive story and consistent art.

I want to thank Mr. Niemann for taking the time to respond to my questions and for producing such a wonderful book for children. It's one I know my girls will enjoy for years to come.

Be sure to check out Mr. Niemann's website and keep an eye out for his future books. I know we will.

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About Fitz

Fitz is a software engineer and writer who lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with his family and pets, trying to survive the chaos!