In a letter printed after the novel’s closing chapter, Eva Josefkowicz tells her readers that her father died when she was a teenager. He had always shared books with her, and ‘when he died, I missed him so much I didn’t really want to speak to anyone’. In time, she realised that their love for each other, and his passion for stories and legends, remained powerfully alive within her, helping to shape this novel. For readers who might have endured a similar loss, Jozefkowicz adds a page of information about the charity, Grief Encounter, who offer support, a helpline, and much more
Kon is about 12 when he also loses his dad, who had been great at sharing books and just talking with Kon; and Kon could talk to him about anything too. His father opened a bookshop, A Likely Story, in the seaside town where they lived. Dad had the knack of finding just the right book for any of his customers. Then, everything stopped; a fatal heart attack among the bookshelves in his beloved shop. The months pass, but Kon speaks to no-one – his friends (and enemies) and teachers at school; not even his grieving Mum. When he can, he heads out to the lonely marshes by the sea, which he and his dad had often explored. Kon discovers the shape of a creature’s claw, embedded in an outcrop of rock. Dad had taught him well. Kon can spot the difference between the print of a Baryonyx and a Megalosaurus, but he’s never seen one like this before: three-pronged, like a bird’s claw, but much, much bigger.
Whenever he returns to gaze at the outline, Kon feels calmer, closer to his dad. It’s here, in this secret place, that he first meets Maya. Or, rather, hears her haunting singing, before they come face to face. She’s studying creatures in danger of extinction; she’s well-informed, because her dad is a conservationist. Her family has just moved to the town since these isolated marshes provide a rich habitat for endangered species.
British Kon and Brazilian Maya share the story from this point. To his surprise, Kon wants to talk with Maya; they find a swift empathy. Kon soon takes her to the bookshop and it’s while they are alone there – about a third of the way through the novel – that the narrative abruptly shifts in pace, place and time. The seaside town will surely have seemed familiar enough to many young readers. The personalities of Kon and Maya may have seemed less familiar, given their circumstances; and also, for a couple of twelve-year-olds, they are exceptionally articulate, self-aware and academically eager (Kon is already making strong progress in trigonometry at his school). Now, within a sentence or two, readers must leave A Likely Story hundreds of years behind them, emerging with Kon and Maya in medieval Krakow, which Kon knows from the legends his father told of his Polish homeland. The locals seem to expect the newcomers, welcoming them warmly. What’s more, the pair are soon playing a part in one of Krakow’s most famous legends – which Kon also recognises as one of his dad’s favourites. It’s about the terrifying dragon who lives beneath the royal castle of Wawel. Rampaging through the city every night, the dragon is reducing the streets to famine and terror, his hunger never sated. Kon is in a strange position since – unlike his new friends – he knows how the story ends, and it didn’t finish well for the dragon. He also now knows who made that print out there on the marshes.
Maya and Kon are quick to see they’ve been brought to Krakow to bring the tale of the dragon to its conclusion – but that doesn’t mean they have to stick to the narrative Kon heard in Dad’s version. Readers will surely enjoy the dangers and surprises as the adventure races to its unpredictable end, in contrast to the patient establishment of the characters and their difficulties in the first third of the book. These early chapters may seem to have lacked incident, but the author had her reasons. Remembering her own response to her father’s death, no doubt she wants young readers to recognise the richness of Kon’s relationship with his dad, so that they might later realise that such love neither fades nor dies, but remains to strengthen the one left behind.