Book Review: “The Last Dragon” by Charles Massy and Mandy Foot (#CharlesMassy @mandy_foot @nlagovau @EasternRegional)

The Last Dragon (National Library of Australia, 2021) by Charles Massy and Mandy Foot

The Last Dragon, written by Charles Massy, illustrated by Mandy Foot and published by the National Library of Australia (NLA) in November 2021, tells the fascinating story of one of Australia’s rarest reptiles.

The tiny Monaro grassland earless dragons weigh between six and nine grams. Their bodies are six to eight centimetres long, with tails of similar length. Usually living for one to two years, they are now endangered, facing habitat loss and the impacts of climate change.

These dragons lay only three to six eggs once a year, just under the ground on the open grasslands where the sun can warm them. However, these areas are often overgrazed by sheep and cattle and damaged by ploughing and other farming activities, which can disturb and even wipe out whole local dragon populations.

In The Last Dragon, a little such dragon named Timpo lives on the open plains of the high Monaro. He is small and clever, with Wolfie the wolf spider – with “a smiling bundle of eyes” and a “kind, motherly face” – being his dear friend.

But Timpo soon notices he is the only dragon in his valley:

“As he explored, Timpo paused to utter his low singing cry: ‘Is anyone out there? Any dragons? Please?’ But there was no answer… Slowly the truth was becoming clear: that in the long days ahead Timpo would have no other dragons to talk to or play with, none to befriend or love.”

As Timpo embarks on a journey to look for other dragons, Wolfie double-fastens her sac of spiderlings and goes with him. Their adventure is full of unexpected surprises and risks as the two small creatures encounter a variety of Australian native wildlife across the landscape.

At one stage, it reminds readers of the barn spider in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952). Like Charlotte, Wolfie offers much wisdom and guidance to her friend. She is surely one of the most endearing spider characters in our world’s literature.

At the end of the book, Massy highlights the Monaro grassland earless dragon as one of the most endangered reptiles in the world. Still, hope remains as landholders are increasingly working with scientists to implement ecological grazing practices.

Particularly noteworthy are two blog articles published on the NLA website, where Massy discusses his research findings while Foot shares how she came to work on the book. When asked if she could illustrate the NLA’s new publication about a dragon, Foot recalls:

“My immediate thoughts were… awesome, yes! Fire breathing, big wings, flared nostrils, ancient scales, wait… what? It’s a real dragon! Tiny, babies can fit on a 50-cent piece, and it takes shelter in wolf spider burrows!”

With Massy’s delightful writing and Foot’s brilliant art work, The Last Dragon conveys the everlasting yearning in all creatures great and small to seek out their own kind. It is a gentle reminder to pay more attention to our own natural environment and how even the tiniest of life forms deserve respect and care.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Tender tale of a rare Australian reptile” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, April 19, 2022, P.21.

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