December 14, 2023

Dragon's Dilemma

Written by Catherine Little
Illustrated by Sae Kimura
Plumleaf Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-10
December 2023
When Catherine Little told us of the Emperor's Great Race, a story often told to children for the Lunar New Year, in Twelve in a Race (2022), we learned that there were twelve animals whose positions lead to the Chinese Zodiac: a pig, a dog, a rooster, a monkey, a goat, a horse, a snake, a dragon, a rabbit, a tiger, an ox and a rat.  This is the dragon's story.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Seeing his competition, Dragon comes into the race convinced that he would win.
I am by far the biggest, by far the fastest, 
and I am the only one who can fly! (pg. 13)
As the emperor  begins the race, the dragon takes to the skies and surveys his competition, seeing who is faster and slower, and all the while assured of his victory. So, while the other animals raced along the ground, Dragon decides he has no need to rush and would take in the sights of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Grand Canyon, Parícutin Volcano, Guanabara Bay, the Northern Lights, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, and the Great Barrier Reef.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
From his final stop on Mount Everest, Dragon spots the animals in the final leg of the race and prepares to swoop in to victory. But, as he passes over the parched mountainsides and dried rice fields, he is spotted by villagers who are sure the dragon has arrived to help them out, because "We Dragons are kind, and we try to help when we can." (pg. 24) And even though he intends to help after the race, children singing a song to praise him compels him to deliver, via many trips, water from the river to their parched lands.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Resuming the race, he is moved to see Rabbit struggling and blows him across the finish line before taking his own place, coming in fifth. Though disappointed in his showing in the race, Dragon can still recall the impact of his good deed and the appreciation of the villagers.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Though many Asian-Canadians will know the story of the Emperor's Great Race and the Chinese Zodiac, it was a new one to me. The story of how the animals' behaviours impacted their placement (see Twelve in a Race) is riveting and learning more details of Dragon's race result is all the more compelling. He may have been disappointed by his fifth-place result but for young readers there is far more to the story. Catherine Little not only introduces the Seven Natural Wonders of the World to readers but she teaches the decency of benevolence and compassion. Dragon is initially quite confident, even overly assured of his success. He could have swooped in and won the race handily. However, he was able to put aside his hubris and do good, even at a cost for himself. And that good will would sustain him, as it often does all of us, through a time of disappointment.
Dragon's Dilemma is Catherine Little's second collaboration with illustrator Sae Kimura, a Japanese-born, Toronto-residing multidisciplinary artist who creates stories with acrylic gouache, pencil crayons or watercolour, as well as puppets and silkscreen (Check out her website at for a more complete bio.) While keeping the realism of the animals and known landmarks, Sae Kimura introduces fantastical elements that give her illustrations a dream-like quality. Her dragon is exotic in colours and form, and her landscapes, from pink-tinged clouds and textured lands, are wonderfully evocative of a different and unreal time. 
The Lunar New Year on February 10, 2024 will herald the Year of the Dragon so the Dragon's Dilemma, as well as Twelve in a Race, will be perfect accompaniments for the festivities whether at home, at school, or in the community. And take a lesson from Dragon that, given the choice of selfish achievement or benevolent charity, compassion should always lead.

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