Thursday, 22 November 2018

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala - reviewed by Damian Harvey

This is a great picture book for older readers to enjoy and will have lots of appeal for children with an interest in animals - especially reptiles. While the life story of an early 20th century zoologist is not a subject that you would normally expect from a picture book, Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala have made it work very well. 

‘Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor’, tells the story of Jean Beauchamp Proctor, a British zoologist (herpetologist) born in London in 1897. Joan developed a keen interest in reptiles and amphibians from a very early age and by the time she was ten she was keeping snakes and lizards as pets. For her sixteenth birthday she was given a baby crocodile as a present, which she then took to school… delighting her friends and no doubt worrying the teachers. 

Joan's life and work is interesting enough, but children reading this will discover that that, although she was good student, ill health prevented her from achieving the academic qualifications that she might otherwise have done. This, however, didn’t stop Joan from working towards and achieving her goals... something that children that may struggle with exams can find inspiration from. 

In her teens, Joan frequently visited the Natural History Museum whee her keen interest and knowledge of reptiles brought her to the attention of the curator of reptiles and fish, who soon recognised Joan’s ability and hired her as an assistant. Joan surveyed the collections, published scientific papers and also created models and drawings for the exhibits. When London Zoo decided to update their reptile house they called on Joan’s expertise to design the perfect habitat. The dragons referred to in the book’s title are Komodo dragons and at the time Joan was designing the reptile house stories of some huge man eating lizards living on the island of Komodo had emerged. It was said that these creatures were faster than a car and stronger than an ox, but Joan wasn’t frightened … she wanted to study them for herself. Joan found that the dragons weren’t as fierce as many people had thought and developed a strong bond with one in particular, often walking with it around London Zoo.

The story of Joan Proctor and her pioneering work makes for good and entertaining reading. The author, Patricia Valdez is an American scientist who, as well as writing for children, works at the National Institute for Health in Washington DC and her passion for the subject matter clearly comes through. Children will be drawn to this book because of its lizards, snakes and, of course, the dragons which have all been wonderfully illustrated by Felicita Sala in a style that perfectly fits the time period. A great introduction to the life and work of a pioneering woman who is often overlooked.          


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