Where Dragon fact and fiction collide

posted in: Katie Haworth, Mónica Armiño | 7

As some of you may know, I’m being kept out of too much mischief at the moment, looking after a UK wide initiative promoting children’s non-fiction books – National Non-Fiction November. As well as creating lots of resources for schools, groups and families to use to explore non-fiction, I’ve been curating a series of guest posts about non-fiction, several of which have discussed the value of using features we associate with fiction to help bring facts alive, such as non-photographic illustration and the use of a narrative structure.

Whilst narrative non-fiction is certainly a growing area (especially in the US, though less so in the UK), what about its “inverse”?

I’m thinking of fiction disguised as fact. Books which pass themselves off as “true” or “real” (whilst they are actually primarily works of imagination and fiction) are tremendously popular with my kids. I’m not sure if it is because they like the permission to pretend, or simply the slightly mischievous nature of passing something as true, when it isn’t quite all that.

Perhaps it starts with novels which include features like maps and photographic illustration, giving a sense of authenticity to what you’ll find amongst the pages (for example the photos in the Miss Peregrine books, or The Mystery of the Fool and The Vanisher by David and Ruth Ellwand), and then it moves up a gear in books like Monsters: An Owner’s Guide Paperback by Jonathan Emmett and Mark Oliver, the Ology books, the Alan Snow series about how things really work and the ‘Monsters From…’ series by Chris Dennett, which make use of many of the features associated with non-fiction (e.g. lists, instructions, stand alone paragraphs of information, indexes, glossaries), but which are actually works of pure fantasy.

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dragonkeepershandbookThe Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth with illustrations by Mónica Armiño is the latest fiction-disguised-as-fact book to excite my kids. It gives them all the knowledge they need to learn how to ride a dragon, to care for dragon eggs, to cope with fire-breathing disasters and even how to look after dragons with upset tummies. As I’ve said elsewhere, ‘non-fiction’ empowers its readers!

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook is gloriously international in scope, with information about hydras, ryūs, lungs, mishepishus and many more dragons across the world, as well as their keepers and slayers, such as (Saint) George, Beowulf and Empress Jingu.

Topics as diverse as toilet training, cuddling your dragon, singing to your dragon, stunt skills (for experienced dragon pilots), and even managing your dragon’s all consuming passion for treasure are covered in a clear, matter of fact way, much like you might find in a reassuring but honest baby guide book for new parents. It’s just lovely how this book takes the reader’s passion and commitment to dragons very seriously; no child likes to be patronisingly dismissed for believing in stories.

The very wide ranging set of issues covered make this book feel solid and comprehensive. But rich and engaging content is only one of this book’s strengths. Whilst the reader’s love for dragons is respected at all times, there’s still plenty of room for fun in amongst the facts. You can find out which dragon “will eat anything, including vegetarian dishes“, and there’s lots of sage, deliciously dead-pan advice, such as “If your dragon has started crashing into things you may need to consult a dragon optician. This is complicated for dragons with more than two eyes.“.

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Whilst laughing and learning (what a great combination!) many readers will also love the illustrations which strongly echo the visual style of feature-length animations. Indeed, the main dragon featured in the book appears to be a close relative of How to Train Your Dragon’s Toothless. A perfect mix of monstery cuteness, medieval fantasy detail and warm, textured hues ensure bags of visual appeal, before readers even discover that the book is literally teeming with flaps and pop-ups, delivering what feels like extra secrets and goodies, providing lots to keep hands and minds very busy exploring every aspect of dragon care.

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A playful, imaginative, funny read that keeps on delivering more each time you pick it up, this would make an excellent gift to anyone curious about following Charlie Weasley in to business.

And that’s precisely what my kids would love to do, but seeing as we (when we first read the book) didn’t have any dragon to hand on which to practice our new found skills, we set about conjuring one up – using autumn leaves as scales.

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We covered a huge sheet of paper with the leaves and a generous amount of PVA glue. We had pressed our leaves flat (for just a couple of days before), but I’m not sure how much of a difference that really made.

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Once the glue was dry, we flipped the paper over, and M drew and cut out a dragon which now lives in our hall, protecting us from evil marauders – not that our house is full of golden treasure but still, it’s quite comforting to be under the wing of a friendly mythical beast!

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Whilst we made our dragon we listened to:

  • Jonsi’s Sticks and Stones – from How to Train Your Dragon
  • The Last Dragon by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo – a rap with harp accompaniment!
  • Princess by Big Block SingSong. Another rap, with a dragon in a wagon… (and quite a lot of laughs)


  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading Botanicum include:

  • Making dragon eggs with baby dragons inside, just like we did, almost exactly 7 years ago!
  • Hunting down some of these other dragon books we’ve enjoyed this year including Build The Dragon (by Dugald Steer, with illustrations by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carre). This is a novelty book where you press out robust cardboard pieces to create your own moving dragon, accompanied by a guide to dragons. My kids loved comparing and contrasting the information in this book with that in The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook. Other recently published dragon books they’ve enjoyed include the new 2016 edition of Jackie Morris’ sumptuous Tell Me a Dragon, which contains new and wonderful dragons, not featured in earlier versions of this book, and Dare to Care: Pet Dragon by Sally Symes with incredibly detailed illustrations by M. P. Robertson. It would be remiss of me not to also mention my eldest’s all time absolute favourite series about dragons: The Dragonsdome Chronicles by Lucinda Hare.
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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher, Templar Books.

    My thanks go to Twitter buddies @scribblestreet @minervamoan @LucyCourtenay1 @librarymice @RebeccaLucas @Sophia_Rich100 @RellyAB @damyantipatel @JennySarahJones @aitcheldee and @bookloverJo for their helpful, enjoyable and generous discussion around fiction-as-fact books.

    7 Responses

    1. Born in the year of the dragon (a looong time ago) I love anything dragon related.
      Love your autumn leaves as dragon scales idea

    2. This is so interesting – is there a name for fiction as fact? Love the dragon you made. I’d like to add ‘Herb the Vegetarian Dragon’ to your bottom list which has been enjoyed in our house. Btw, I wanted to let you know that this half term we’ve been exploring non-fiction, inspired by your blog, in my creative writing club. The kids were initially quite skeptical as they’re used to poetry & story writing, but we’ve persevered and it’s been great witnessing the levels of enthusiasm and we are now embarking on writing a group non-fiction book 🙂
      Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..How a dyslexic child turned into a best selling author

    3. I love this idea of fiction disguised as non-fiction. We have a couple of books like that, now I come to think of it, but had never ‘defined’ it in this way in my head before.

    4. I love this idea of fiction disguised as non-fiction. We have a couple of books like that, now I come to think of it, but had never ‘defined’ it in this way in my head before.
      Claire Potter recently posted..A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

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