“‘It’s all right,’ said Mimi. ‘Come back down. I won’t hurt you. I won’t let anyone hurt you.’ She held out her arm. ‘Come on, little dragon.’ Mimi knew he would come when he was ready. And so he did, floating down on outstretched wings and landing on her wrist.” (p.18, Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, 2014).
I can’t think of a better time than now to talk about empathy. As the world faces one of its biggest health challenges, world leaders call for people to be understanding, considerate of one another, and mindful of those who are more vulnerable than themselves. It seems appropriate then, to be reading a book by an author who has championed such themes in his writings for children throughout his career.
Former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, is quoted as saying that if children have never imagined the lives of others, then they won’t learn empathy and make good decisions in later life. This appears to be the motivation behind Mimi and the Mountain Dragon, a story inspired by a trip to Switzerland where Morpurgo witnessed children from a village ringing cow bells, banging drums and cracking whips to drive away evil spirits – a ritual they performed every year.
His story starts with this tradition, but the evil spirits have been translated into the fear of a mountain dragon, and the ritual now includes the retelling of a story that reminds the villagers of how their community encountered the dragon through the courage of a small girl many years before.
For anyone that has read other Morpurgo stories, looking back to the past is an important part of how he aims to challenge young readers into empathising with people in situations that they may never have encountered before. Stories of others long-gone, can fall on deaf ears, however, for a generation that is very much focused on the immediate present and the near future. But by introducing us to a narrator in the present day, involved in an intriguing ritualistic act, we are compelled to listen as he takes us back-in-time to unravel the story behind the unusual traditions of the mountain community.
The first person narrative that begins the tale makes us believe that the character presenting the story at the village gathering is in fact Morpurgo, and in this way, we as readers take the seats of the characters sitting around the campfire, ready and waiting to listen to the story that explains why the villagers use symbols of war and conflict in their Christmas tradition every year.
We hear the story of Mimi, a young girl who defies her parents and risks her own life to return a baby dragon to its mother at the top of the mountain, despite the belief that the dragon creates avalanches and takes people off the mountain. Her empathy for the small dragon, separated from its mother, demonstrates how children should learn to understand all creatures, no matter how different they maybe from ourselves. Morpurgo says here that if empathy is not learnt in childhood, then young people become adults, like those in the village, who not only don’t understand those outside of their community, but are unwilling to even try.
Mimi’s adventure on the mountain shows her that if you invest the time, you can find creative ways to communicate across barriers and although the creature is bigger and stronger than any human, she is a mother, protecting her child, just as her own mother would. She learns that the image of the dragon has distorted the villagers understanding of their mountain environment, and in fact it is the people who created a monster far scarier than the reality.
Morpurgo often highlights the dangers of ‘otherness’ in his stories for children, and how fear of the ‘other’ leads to conflict. He shows through Mimi that simple acts of kindness can bridge significant divides and has its own rewards, when the dragon ultimately saves the whole village from a snow storm.
Flash forward through the years of retelling this story to the villagers and we can now see that the banging of drums, ringing of cowbells, and cracking of whips commemorates a past ritual of both war and reconciliation, and the act of telling the story each year is the reminder that never again should the villagers rage against others, when there has been no attempt to reach out to them in the first place.
Morpurgo is typical of many other contemporary children’s writers, who demonstrate the loss of the ‘golden age’ of childhood. Children are no longer protected from an adult world, they can be corrupted by it and often fall victim to it. Mimi was in danger of becoming an adult as ignorant of her immediate environment as generations gone before her. It was her ability to empathise with another innocent young being that ultimately saves her and the generations to follow.
This beautifully illustrated story, now also a BBC animation, is sure to be a firm favourite with children and parents alike, and just like the villagers’ annual Christmas story-telling, is sure to be read and enjoyed again and again.
Recommended to readers aged 5 upwards