The Pet Dragon
by Christopher Niemann
2008, 40 pages, 9 x 11.8 x 0.4 inches (hardcover)
Chinese characters are wonderfully expressive, straddling the fine line between the written word and illustration. Esteemed graphic designer and picture book creator Christoph Niemann realized as much with The Pet Dragon, a whimsical story about a Chinese girl who raises a baby dragon to adulthood. In his introduction to the book, Niemann states that he had fun imagining connections between the calligraphic characters and their meanings. Reading the book, it's clear that the author has a love of his subject and was very much enjoying himself.
The story is straightforward. A young Chinese girl named Lin receives a baby dragon who grows too quickly to stay in her home. After breaking a vase, Lin's father condemns the baby dragon to its cage. The wily dragon escapes, leading Lin on a quest to find her beloved pet. Niemann enriches his tale by transposing Chinese characters on top of his illustrations to demonstrate the relationship between each symbol and what it represents. A forest is shown as a series of trees with the symbol for tree superimposed on them, the curving lines below indicating the roots and the extended lines at the top stretching outward for the branches. The upraised slashes and crossed lines in the symbol for father become the raised eyebrows and nose on his face, while the character denoting mountain has its three upward prongs displayed over a towering mountain range. The story concludes with the twin calligraphic symbols denoting the word friend displayed atop the reunited Lin and the titular dragon.
Niemann's artwork is clean and modernist in style, and his novel approach to integrating expressive, ebullient images with the sparse, minimalist strokes of traditional calligraphy proves both endearing and effective. Although this is a book that can be read quickly, the reader should also take time to examine and enjoy the interplay between pictures and meaning that the author meticulously constructs.
– Lee Hollman