Saturday, April 12, 2008

Linda Zinnen

The Dragons of Spratt, Ohio
by Linda Zinnen
Recommended Age: 12+

Salt (full name, John Salt) is a kid who lives near the Wilds, a chunk of reclaimed coal-mining land in Ohio where wild animals from all over the world are fed, studied, and protected. Salt’s Dad is an animal doctor; his mother is the director of the Wilds. So he gets to spend a lot of time with animals. But Salt’s favorite specimens are the brood of rare, flying dragons that have just hatched on the Wilds—the first live dragons in recorded Ohio history.

Salt worships a Chinese dracologist named Dr. Zhao. He nurses nine baby dragons. He draws pictures of them. He even wears their dung to school on the cuffs of his trousers. Which makes him seem a bit odd to his classmates, including his best friend’s glamorous, popular, and surprisingly intelligent sister Candi. The person Candi worships is Salt’s aunt, the head of research at a big Paris-based cosmetics company. When Dr. Salt drops in for an unexpected visit, Candi trails after her, hoping to be picked as her assistant for an upcoming Paris fashion show.

But it turns out that Dr. Mary Athena Salt has her own designs on Salt’s dragons. A sinister plan to sacrifice these rare, magical creatures—and her nephew, if necessary—to perfect her long-sought-after antidote to aging. With no one to help him defend his beloved dragons, Salt leads them on a desperate nighttime journey to hide them from Aunt Mary Athena. Meanwhile, Candi is forced to rethink her priorities when her ambition to become Dr. Salt’s assistant gets her mixed up in a dangerous and cruel experiment. Now the two unlikely friends must stand together to stop the ultimate “dragon lady” from achieving her vicious wish.

This isn’t Linda Zinnen’s first book, but it’s her first that I’ve read. It’s an encouraging starting point, mixing a stranger-than-fiction, real-life place (The Wilds actually exist! Don’t you want to go there?) with an over-the-top villain, mixing scientific animal observations and rugged outdoors adventure with the fantasy of flying on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. There are strengths and weaknesses to Zinnen’s way of capturing the way her young characters think and speak. On the “weakness” side, I lost count of the number of times I read the words “Wow. Just—wow.” Ditto the words “Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Oh, boy.” On the other hand, Candi’s confused mixture of vanity and cleverness, and Salt’s naïve simplicity combined with a core of true bravery, add up to a lot of good-natured charm and clean fun.

EDIT: Zinnen's other books include Holding at Third and The Truth about Rats, Rules, and Seventh Grade. For more info, visit her website.

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