You’ve got to hand it to James Kochalka: He sure knows how to come up with crazy characters. The book’s titular character, Dragon Puncher, is a cat in a giant robot suit that, true to her name, is well-skilled in the art of punching dragons. Her dragon-hunting partner, Spoony-E, is a furry young warrior in need of a bath who wields a broken spoon for a weapon and harbors a feisty nature which makes up for his lack of dragon-hunting prowess. Along the way the two heroes cross paths with Monster Slapper, a rival feline decked out in a giant battle-suit who has it in for Spoony-E. And then there’s the dragon itself: a massive ocean-dwelling denizen with an oversized mouth filled with teeth.
This sounds totally awesome, right? Unfortunately, as a long-time Kochalka fan, it pains me to report that Dragon Puncher Island is not up to the usual quality I’ve come to expect from the author. Kochalka, who has created quite a few child-friendly books such as Pinky and Stinky and the Johnny Boo series, misses the mark on a couple different levels, making Dragon Puncher Island good but not great.
Most importantly, there is very little in the way of actual story, even considering the fact that the book is aimed at younger readers. Most of Dragon Puncher Island consists of banter back and forth between the characters that, while amusing, doesn’t have the strength needed to carry the book on its own. In fact, the dialogue almost seems to be aimed at older readers than the actual target audience. Little kids might scratch their heads wondering what exactly Dragon Puncher and Spoony-E are even talking about. By contrast, Mo Willems’ similarly dialogue-heavy Elephant and Piggie series manages to present more organized plots while still remaining silly and inviting.
In addition, though Kochalka made a valiant attempt at using mixed media to create the book’s visuals, the inclusion of photos of his sons, cats, and himself make Dragon Puncher Island feel more like something he and his kids put together as a Mother’s Day gift than anything else. As my wife suggested after she read the book, it would perhaps be better suited for a digital format that allowed readers to personalize the experience by inserting their own photos in place of the ones Kochalka used. As it is, I couldn’t help but feel it was a vanity project.
There is definitely a sprinkling of clever ideas and silly humor present in Dragon Puncher Island, but in the end the various parts don’t quite add up to make a cohesively engrossing package. Though young readers may initially be attracted to the book’s bright artwork and cool premise, I have to question if these factors alone are enough to keep kids engaged to the end. The most stalwart Kochalka fans will no doubt appreciate that his trademark humor and adorable drawing style are still intact after all these years, but with so many better books under the author’s belt, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Dragon Puncher Island.
Dragon Puncher Book 2: Dragon Puncher Island
By James Kochalka
Top Shelf Productions, 2011