If I’d been a sixth grader when I read Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons, I would have hung up a poster of the cover in my room. It has feminists, dragons, and fantasy world-building in a comforting font which envelops you in perfectly ordered chapters and beautifully adjusted paragraphs. In other words, it’s a warm hug for struggling teenage girls and adult women alike.
I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be so when I first began. There’s a glaring “Oppressed. Unleashed. Reborn.” on the front cover along with the title in a slightly tawdry font, all on a dark green-violet background, and an open dragon eye on the bottom left. Sometimes, it’s disconcertingly hard not to judge books by their covers. But I’m glad I opened it, and gladder to have let it invite me in once I began reading.
Dragons and ‘dragoning’
The plot of When Women Were Dragons is pretty straightforward. Set in the mid-1950’s, the book follows Alex, the protagonist, as she manoeuvers around the difficulties of growing up as a girl in the 50s. They’re mostly same old, at least when it comes to tropes – absent father, sick mother, schoolwork, loving a girl in a homophobic world, being viewed with constant scrutiny and…