This is undoubtedly the shortest book I've yet reviewed, a children's picture book which has been a favorite of all my kids. The Paper Dragon, like another I will discuss at some point (Shibumi and the Kitemaker, by Mercer Mayer), tells a fictional tale in the style of older storytelling traditions of the Eastern countries such as China and Japan (or, at least, if this particular tale is a real folktale, I can't find reference to it other than this book).
In the story, a painter by the name of Mi Fei is chosen by his village to confront the great dragon Sui Jen, who has awakened from his sleep and is destroying everything in the region. Mi Fei is chosen because he is also a writer – he produces painted scrolls which tell the tales of gods and heroes, and thus is the one who knows the most about how monsters might be overcome.
Mi Fei is very loyal to his village and loves its people, so despite feeling utterly inadequate to the task he accepts the mission and confronts Sui Jen. The Dragon, while a force of destruction, is not inherently evil, and tells Mi Fei that "before I return to my ageless slumber, someone must perform three tasks."
This is of course a classic adventure setup, but rather than be sent on a great quest, Mi Fei is forced to unravel three challenging puzzles, one every twelve hours, or Sui Jen will devour him. I won't reveal specifics at this point because the puzzles and their solution by Mi Fei are charming and elegant, and obviously deliberately chosen by Sui Jen to challenge Mi Fei specifically – that is, if someone else had faced the Dragon, Sui Jen would have had different challenges for them to overcome.
This being a children's story, you can be sure that somehow Mi Fei triumphs. What makes this book stand out from among many others is that he does so in a manner that relies both on old knowledge – in essence, studying books, learning from the past – and on clever insight in the present. Mi Fei's great learning is crucial to his success – and so is his great compassion and love for his own people, his home, and his humility and willingness to see beyond the immensity of this task to the simplicity of the situation.
There are also several clever references hidden within the book. For instance, the name "Sui Jen" ("Fire Driller" or "Fire Maker"; the Dragon actually calls himself "The Source of Fire, the Heart of the Mountain") is actually the name of a very ancient Chinese mythological figure who can be best described as a parallel to the Greek figure of Prometheus, a being who brought the secret of fire to mankind.
As another example, the entire description of Sui Jen – the mountain on which he dwells, the fact that he sleeps for long periods only to awaken destructively, and the type of destruction he creates – is very clearly, and I'm sure deliberately, evocative of a volcanic eruption. Sui Jen sends "great winds" that flatten houses and rip trees up, with "fiery breath" that sets the towns on fire, and great force of presence that "tramples the fields". Mi Fei arrives at Lung Mountain to see the top wreathed in smoke and flames, with rocks bouncing down its sides.
The book is beautiful – done in the painting style that, presumably, Mi Fei himself is supposed to be using, with just enough added detail to bring out a clear picture of villagers, hero, and adversary. It is also designed in a unique way – all but the last page of the book are fold-out pages with the printing on the BACK of the foldout, so you can show the whole page to children without having to turn the book back to you to read.
But to me the greatest strength of The Paper Dragon is its powerful message that anyone can be a hero, if they keep their wits about them, and that a hero isn't necessarily a mighty warrior, but someone who does what they know must be done… and who may battle with words, and paper, and courage rather than swords and shields.