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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Free Verse, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH by Holly Thompson

falling into the dragon's mouthJason Parker lives in Japan with his parents, who teach at a university, and his younger sister, Cora.  He is in the 6th grade although he’s a year older than his Japanese classmates, having had to repeat a grade when his family moved to Japan.

When I started Falling Into the Dragon’s Mouth I thought it would be a story about noticing and adapting to cultural differences.  In fact, Jason’s story is nor so much about ‘fitting in’ as it is a story about being both a victim and a bystander of bullying.

The story begins when Jason’s class receives their new seat assignments for the next two months:

I hope for at least

one friend

 

and by friend

I don’t mean

what I used to mean by friend

before I moved to Japan

before I started here

at this school once called

Dragon’s Mouth

 

by friend I just mean

anyone who doesn’t

punch me

for using the wrong word

kick me

for having an accent

or call me

stinking foreigner

 

but this time

I get no friends

Jason endures physical as well as emotional bullying.  Like so many children his age he chooses not to tell his parents, fearing the consequences for him at school will be worse of they speak to his teacher–or some of the other parents.  His mother realizes his behavior indicates something is going on but Jason speaks clearly about how trapped he feels in his situation; he doesn’t see any way to make it better or get help:

What can I say?

it’s not like I have a choice

to go or not go

to that school

 

there’s nothing to explain I say

 

she sighs and gives up

on trying to get me to talk

and says I think you need to make

more effort, Jason Parker

Although Jason finds some peace and safety in his English class and at the dojo where he studies aikido, when he comes home with a bloodied and swollen lip his mother senses things are more serious than Jason is admitting:

Mom gives me a long look

 

I’m listening, J

whenever you want to talk

 

about what?

I quickly say

 

because I can’t imagine

life would get better

if Mom talked to

Oshina-sensei

and stirred things up

in the Dragon’s Mouth

 

things are fine I say

I  just need to make

more effort

Told in free verse, Jason’s story builds to a final, harrowing bully incident at the hands of some of his classmates.  I like the fact that the story does not end with this incident, that it continues to show what Jason and his parents do to try and effect a lasting change for other students:

and as Mom and Dad say

things might not change overnight

but at least people are now talking

an d at least some are listening

and at least some are taking action

Jason talks about feeling betrayed by someone he thought was a friend who ended up in a bystander role and how that was more hurtful to him than the actions of the actual bully.  When Jason talks about the “counseling group” that comes to speak to the students afterward his description could easily apply to almost any 6th grade class in Japan or here in the U.S.:

but no one in class

wants to say too much

no one wants to rat

on anyone else

no one yet trusts

they won’t be a target

in the future

if they say too much

And he eloquently explains what he would wish the school to be like:

that I don’t want kids to just watch

when something’s wrong

that I want our school to teach respect

Falling Into the Dragon’s Mouth is an excellent independent or read-aloud choice for upper elementary or middle school readers.  As a read-aloud it offers countless opportunities for conversation and discussion about bullying, what it feels like to be different and what it’s like to accept and appreciate differences in ourselves and others.  It also offers a chance to talk about what is involved in making sure we do not stand silently by when someone is being hurt–physically or verbally–by an individual or small group.  This book has the potential to be a powerful driving force behind readers’ ideas and insights…and consequently, their actions.

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