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When Women Were Dragons
Cover of When Women Were Dragons
When Women Were Dragons
A Novel
A KIRKUS BEST BOOK OF 2022 • A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman’s place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. • The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.
 
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and 
watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.
In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.
A KIRKUS BEST BOOK OF 2022 • A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman’s place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. • The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.
 
Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and 
watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.
In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.
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  • From the cover

    1.

     

    I was four years old when I first met a dragon. I never told my mother. I didn’t think she’d understand.

     

    (I was wrong, obviously. But I was wrong about a lot of things when it came to her. This is not particularly unusual. I think, perhaps, none of us ever know our mothers, not really. Or at least, not until it’s too late.)

     

    The day I met a dragon, was, for me, a day of loss, set in a time of instability. My mother had been gone for over two months. My father, whose face had become as empty and expressionless as a hand in a glove, gave me no explanation. My auntie Marla, who had come to stay with us to take care of me while my mother was gone, was similarly blank. Neither spoke of my mother’s status or whereabouts. They did not tell me when she would be back. I was a child, and was therefore given no information, no frame of reference, and no means by which I might ask a question. They told me to be a good girl. They hoped I would forget.

     

    There was, back then, a little old lady who lived across our alley. She had a garden and a beautiful shed and several chickens who lived in a small coop with a faux owl perched on top. Sometimes, when I wandered into her yard to say hello, she would give me a bundle of carrots. Sometimes she would hand me an egg. Or a cookie. Or a basket full of strawberries. I loved her. She was, for me, the one sensible thing in a too-­often senseless world. She spoke with a heavy accent—­Polish, I learned much later—­and called me her little żabko, as I was always jumping about like a frog, and then would put me to work picking ground-­cherries or early tomatoes or nasturtiums or sweet peas. And then, after a bit, she would take my hand and walk me home, admonishing my mother (before her disappearance) or my aunt (during those long months of mother-­missing). “You must keep your eyes on this one,” she’d scold, “or one day she’ll sprout wings and fly away.”

     

    It was the very end of July when I met the dragon, on an oppressively hot and humid afternoon. One of those days when thunderstorms linger just at the edge of the sky, hulking in raggedy murmurs for hours, waiting to bring in their whirlwinds of opposites—­making the light dark, howling at silences, and wringing all the wetness out of the air like a great, soaked sponge. At this moment, though, the storm had not yet hit, and the whole world simply waited. The air was so damp and warm that it was nearly solid. My scalp sweated into my braids, and my smocked dress had become crinkled with my grubby handprints.

     

    I remember the staccato barking of a neighborhood dog.

     

    I remember the far-­off rumble of a revving engine. This was likely my aunt, fixing yet another neighbor’s car. My aunt was a mechanic, and people said she had magic hands. She could take any broken machine and make it live again.

     

    I remember the strange, electric hum of cicadas calling to one another from tree to tree to tree.

     

    I remember the floating motes of dust and pollen hanging in the air, glinting in the slant of light.

     

    I remember a series of sounds from my neighbor’s backyard. A man’s roar. A woman’s scream. A panicked gasping. A scrabble and a thud. And then, a quiet, awestruck Oh!

     

    Each one of these memories is clear and keen as broken glass. I had no means to understand them at the time—­no way to find the link between distinct and seemingly unrelated moments and bits of...

About the Author-
  • KELLY BARNHILL has written several middle grade novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2017 John Newbery Medal. She is also the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, and has been a finalist for the SFWA Andre Norton Nebula Award and the PEN America Literary Award. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. 
     
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 21, 2022
    Newbery winner Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon) makes her adult debut with a deeply felt exploration of feminism in an alternate fantastical history. Alex Green was a child in Wisconsin in 1955 when over 600,000 American women spontaneously turned into dragons, including her beloved Aunt Marla, and flew away. Alex’s mother brings Marla’s daughter Beatrice to live with them and, like the rest of American society, refuses to even discuss dragons. Alex grows up adoring her younger cousin, and their close friendship assuages the stress she feels from her mother’s pressure to succeed at school, as well as from her chauvinist father. After Alex’s mother dies of cancer, her father moves the girls into a tiny apartment where he offers meager financial support and forbids Alex from shopping at the grocery store, afraid people will think he can’t provide for them. Determined to get to college, Alex plows through high school with the help of a librarian; she also cautions Beatrice over her “dangerous” attraction to images of angry dragons. Meanwhile, flyers promising the truth about the “Great Dragoning” begin to appear around town, and scientists try to determine the cause of the women’s metamorphosis. Barnhill makes palpable Alex’s sense of loss as well as the strictures of mid-century American life. This allegory packs a punch. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2022

    Barnhill's (The Girl Who Drank the Moon) adult debut is set in a 1950s United States after hundreds of thousands of women transformed into rampaging dragons and then vanished into the skies with other similarly changed women. The book is split into two threads, each performed by a different narrator. Kimberly Farr voices Alex Green, who begins the story as a young girl whose beloved aunt was lost in the Mass Dragoning of 1955. With a timeless storyteller's voice, Farr ably portrays Alex's first-person point of view as she grows up with her cousin Beatrice, moving out of her grim childhood and cautiously gaining a new sense of self. Mark Bramhall narrates interstitial chapters in the form of interviews, articles, and other ephemera that give context to the idea of dragoning. Bramhill's scholarly delivery can feel a bit dry, but his warm tone ensures that listeners will never be bored. VERDICT Listeners will be exhilarated as they see Alex growing from a na�ve girl into a woman who abandons the prejudices of her parents and embraces female empowerment.--Matthew Galloway

    Copyright 2022 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Novel
Kelly Barnhill
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