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Dragons, chivalry, and a lovely old castle

This fall there's a winning crop of fantasy books by children's authors with serious credentials.

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If you've got a child who's happiest with his or her head in the clouds, but is having a little trouble achieving lift-off without the aid of a Nimbus 2000, don't despair. This autumn features one of the most pedigreed fantasy lineups in years. Two of my absolute favorite authors from elementary-school days (don't tell your kids – they'll never read the books) have new offerings to help kick the fall off in fine style, and the season features so many Newbery Award-winners, they'll have to build a bigger podium to fit them all.

A boy finds a baby dragon and must protect it from the rest of the world. Sound a little like "Eragon?" Well, Christopher Paolini's bestseller has about as much in common with Newbery Award-winner Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven (Putnam Juvenile, 272 pp., $17.99) as a chameleon does with a Komodo dragon. Accomplished, original, and sophisticated enough even for teen readers, "Dragonhaven" is one of the few tales about fire breathers not to owe a debt to either J.R.R. Tolkien or Anne McCaffrey. (And baby Lois has little in common with Mawr, the fearsome monster from McKinley's award-winning "The Hero and the Crown.")

Jake Mendoza has grown up in Smokehill, a nature preserve near Wyoming that houses 200 of the world's remaining Draco australiensis. On a hike, he stumbles across a mother dragon and a poacher who have killed each other. One of the babies – a tiny, squodgy thing as big as his hand – is still alive, and without thinking, Jake stuffs it down his shirt. Unfortunately, the only thing more illegal than killing a dragon is saving one. Written as a memoir, Jake's love for Lois keeps the novel firing on all cylinders, even when the flashback device drains some of the suspense from climactic scenes.


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