Between a Roc and a Hard Place
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:3 (#356) in March 2012.]
This slim volume takes the traditional ugly duckling story and expands it to dragon size, creating Tephra, a dragon nested among rocs, destined to bring together the birds and lizards of the world. After her mother is forced to flee from her cave with only two of her eggs — pursued by violent and wretched humans who hope to bring about the demise of all dragons — Tephra is dropped, still as an egg, into the nest of Rocky and Rose Quartz. Rocky, an all-brawn-no-brains type of bird, is a good protector for Rose Quartz and the eggs, but it is insightful and maternal Rose Quartz who first realizes that the egg in her nest is no normal blessing from the Great Stork. Despite the egg’s strange appearance, Rose Quartz takes in the strange new child, recognizing her as a dragon long before Tephra is aware of her identity.
Unlike the normal ugly duckling stories, Tephra’s tale has only begun when her true identity is revealed. And it is not her beauty that attracts others to her: rather, it is her tendency to think both like a reptile and like a bird. Nested among birds, she has a natural affinity to her feathered brethren, but she feels a kinship for the scaled creatures that more closely resemble her. Eventually, a myth of the creation of dragons is revealed: the creatures were intended to bring peace to all animals born from eggs, but instead were reviled by lizards and birds alike. Tephra becomes the fulfillment of that initial purpose, and over many years, through her leadership ability and her creative problem solving, she carves out a beautiful reserve for herself and her fellow egg-born. Until, of course, the humans begin to encroach upon her territory…
Birt does a fantastic job capturing both the fairy tale and the fantasy sensibilities, setting a tone appropriate for young children, with plenty of puns, while keeping the simple story entertaining enough that older readers (and, dare I say it, some adults) will enjoy it as a breezy read. The illustrations by Richard Svensson are cheerful and well placed, and occasionally rise above simple illustration to become a drawing force in the narrative. (Over a two and a half page spread, on which the only words are “Feathers…went…everywhere,” Svensson covers the pages with feathers startled out of Tephra’s roc siblings, adding emphasis to the event and showing exactly how dramatic the moment is for young Tephra.) Birt creates incredibly entertaining naming conventions of the rocs (who must name their children after some form of rock) and the dragons (whose names are abbreviations of a much longer name: Tephra takes the dragon name Tephra Ave, which stands for Those Pyroclastic Heated Rocks Airborne After Volcanoes Eruptions, an acronym that also defines her original roc name). And, despite their introduction, not all humans are evil, leaving the story to end with hope that Tephra and her animal friends will be able to maintain their lands in spite of human population growth.
There is little real conflict or risk in the story, but that lack of intensity is exactly part of the appeal. Young readers will never really worry about Tephra’s survival, but they will be excited to see how she outsmarts her enemies and how she unites her friends. None of the characters are extremely deeply drawn, but again, that is part of the charm: Tephra is the only character who worries about her self-identity, and she’s the only one who really needs to. The Stork is a stork, Rose Quartz and Rocky are rocs, Ana Conda is a snake, and they know their place in life. Tephra has the opportunity to create her own place, and, by doing so, create a better world.
All in all, Birt has created a charming story that will work well as a read-aloud for children not yet independent enough for its length, or as an independent read for more advanced readers ready for vocabulary challenges. It’s also a fun, light-hearted read for adults who enjoy a bit of happily ever after in their fairy tales.