Review of When Women Were Dragons


Jaiden Heaton, Staff Reviewer

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill is a standalone novel. My sibling Hanna wanted me to review this, and I needed a break from romance.

The world this takes place in is like ours, except for there being dragonings, which refers to when people (usually women) turn into dragons. The novel follows Alex Green in a memoir style of storytelling. Alex details her time leading up to the Mass Dragoning of April 25, 1955, and what happens after, with some letters and excerpts from a man named Henry Gantz thrown in. Alex’s life is turned upside down when the mass dragoning of 1955 occurred, with her aunt Marla dragoning and her mother not (but almost) dragoning. Instead, her mother takes in her cousin Beatrice and claims that she’s her sister, not her cousin and that she’s never had a sister. Alex has many questions, like why she didn’t her mother turn into a dragon and what’s to become of those left behind. However, she can’t get answers to the questions she has. This is all because dragons are considered highly taboo, with much research and information being covered or forbidden. This poses a problem when Beatrice starts becoming obsessed with dragons. Through letters and excerpts, Gantz details dragons, the accessibility of information, and a history covered by people and the government.

Things I liked or felt were positives. It’s a short read, with the novel at about 336 pages. This is one of the few books that made me cry. The book has an emotional weight that helps build up Alex’s struggles. The characters’ emotions and desires play an essential role in the themes and messaging of the story, and it’s built up very well and thought through. I loved the themes and messaging of the importance of choice, wants and desires for one’s life, equality, acceptance, and accessibility of information. I liked all the characters and their relationships and dynamics with each other. Slight spoiler warning for the rest of this section; skip to the next paragraph for the negatives. One that stood out for me was Alex and Marla because I completely understand the feeling that comes with someone who walked out of your life coming back in. Kelly Barnhill did a perfect job of capturing the feeling that comes with that.

Things I felt others might not like or could be improved. The themes and messaging can be in your face at times. I thought it could have benefited from a perspective of a person of color because it leaned more on the white feminism side. A look into someone of color could have given it more complexity and brought a different perspective to some of the issues. One way to keep the memoir style and Alex’s storyline while adding a person of color’s view is to add things like letters and excerpts from a book (like with Gantz). The book is a bit wordy. Slight spoiler warning for the rest of this section of the review, skip to the last paragraph for rating. How did the dragons do things like wear purses, put on makeup, or fix cars? It needs to be explained how the dragons are doing these things. It’s supposed to be an allegory or metaphor, depending on how you look at it, but still.

I give this five stars, feminine, queer, and overall beautiful. I recommend reading this if it sounds interesting to you. The East Central Regional Library has the book as an ebook and physical. For Hanna specifically, wait a couple of years, but you’ll like this when you get to it.