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The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

Book review: ‘When Women Were Dragons’

Marina Martinez
When Women Were Dragons was released on May 3, 2022. Kirkus reviews named it one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2022.

A book about women turning into dragons. Could I really ask for anything more?

I was at Waterstone’s London bookstore over the summer when I first found it. A book with a beautiful cover that I’d never seen before. It lay covered in deep green foliage and purple flowers with a bright green dragon hiding within and a waxing crescent in the top right corner.

Filled with excitement, I turned it around to check out the vague description of the plot on the back. A story set in the 1950s where one day, thousands of women across America suddenly turn into dragons. It seemed interesting, and if I’m being honest, a little funny.

After a long thought, I went to the cashier and bought the book, the treasures the pages would hold unbeknownst to me.

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When Women Were Dragons” by Kelly Barnhill follows the story of Alex, a young girl whose world turns upside down after her aunt mysteriously disappears, leaving her with a cousin for a sister and a storm of questions. As she goes through life taking care of her sister, she faces the struggles of the world, unsure if she should rely on her feelings or what adults have been telling her since she was a child.

The story ended up being deeper than I anticipated. I didn’t think much about the 1950s aspect until I actually started reading and remembered what a woman’s life was like back then.

Despite their hard-earned right to vote, women still had minimal power in this period. Many still expected to grow up to just be housewives.

And then dragons are added to the picture.

Great, big, fire breathing reptiles with wings. Many times depicted as agents of chaos and evil, which is something that should either be tamed or killed.

But dragons can also be beautiful beings of great wisdom and strength.

I think it perfectly encapsulates the feelings trapped inside a woman, a mix of alluring rage and sadness, being released into the form of a mystical beast. It is, after all, the reason I grabbed this book in the first place.

To become a dragon in this book means to fully become one with your heart and your feelings.

And while the magical mystery of dragons’ lives wasn’t explored as much as I originally expected, it was still interesting to see the whole event from Alex’s perspective.

Many characters close to Alex turn into dragons, making her have to work through feeling left behind and confused on how she should feel about dragons in general. This is a great narrative to how people in our society react to others close to them when they do something that expels them from the so-called “normalcy” of our society.

The way Alex is written feels like those kids who have had all their parents’ biases shoved on to them, making them eventually hurt people they’re close to because of the biases they were forced to have.

All the adults around Alex always talk about how dragons are inappropriate and horrible. She adopts these hateful biases because there were barely any other opinions around her.

Since our society instills such strict directions of our “roles” in society, and what we have to do to be “normal,” anything outside of that circle can scare others who have become conditioned to it. This often pushes people away from each other.

Many times though, especially in our recent generation, kids have been breaking free of these hateful biases.

Characters like these aren’t written as often, other than the usual side characters, so I find it interesting to have a story centered around a character like this.

When Alex goes through this, it is one of the best parts of the plot. It shows the reality of people like her in the real world, not knowing what to think about certain topics or people due to how they were raised.

Topics like these have very clear queer symbolism and support the main ideas of feminism. It’s the idea of equality for everyone and overcoming those who hate these groups for no apparent reason.

And while this book does handle homophobia, it mainly tackles misogyny.

Some people may not like how this book handles misogyny, saying it’s “too extreme” or “hating men”. The sad truth is there were women treated this way, and there still are. But apparently, by pointing out facts of the past in an attempt to show the flaws in these old ideals of what a woman should be, creators get hated on by the exact groups they are trying to call out.

This is a response that can also be seen in the movie “Barbie.”

It seems that most stories now that are obviously feminist are ripped apart by those that consider it too “woke” or “anti-men,” which is ironic as it is exactly what these stories are trying to fight.

The dragons in the book don’t want to kill and establish dominance over every single man in the world. They don’t want to kill all humans so dragons rule supreme. They don’t want to burn the whole world due to the pain they experienced.

They simply want their equal place in the world along with everyone else. And they simply want these men with their old, outdated ideals to understand that.

This is a book I would recommend to anybody who loves dragons and queer feminist stories. And maybe people who want to take a closer look into the powerful, fiery magic inside all women.

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  • S

    Susan HamiltonJun 18, 2024 at 7:57 pm

    It makes me sad that you still believe that wome are not treated as they should be.
    Women have come a very long way in acceptance from others! Yes it atill needs to be better and hopefully one day it will!
    I choose to look for the positive in everything. And when I don’t which happens too frequently I am not as happy.

  • H

    Helen BeebeNov 1, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    Beautiful representation of emotions of the heart. I can’t wait to read this book!