Any new book by Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill (The Ogress and the Orphans) is cause for excitement for fans of children's literature. Though her books appeal to adults and children alike, When Women Were Dragons is her first written for adults. It takes readers to Wisconsin during the 1950s. In addition to the McCarthy hearings and the burgeoning civil rights movement, history must grapple with another significant event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955.
Barnhill grounds her work in a realism colored by elements of the fantastic, specifically the idea that women can and will transform into dragons. That many of these women have been marginalized, underappreciated or forced into societal norms that shrink and contain them is a clue to why they may have dragoned and to what Barnhill is doing in this evocative story. Writing from the end of her life, the narrator, Alex, reconsiders the silences she was forced into as a child and reflects on her fractured relationship with her Auntie Marla (who dragoned) and her mother (who did not). Her story slowly unfolds as she reckons with her own power, asking, "Was I the immovable object, or was I the unstoppable force? Perhaps I was both. Perhaps this is what we learn from our mothers." Balancing the story between Alex's recollections and historical documents, Barnhill explores the taboos around women and anger, resizing paradigms of choice, freedom and the complicated roles of gender in society. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian