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Discussion Guide

When Women Were Dragons: A Novel

By Kelly Barnhill

A rollicking feminist tale set in 1950s America where thousands of women have spontaneously transformed into dragons, exploding notions of a woman’s place in the world and expanding minds about accepting others for who they really are. The first adult novel by the Newbery award-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

 

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.

 

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.

 

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.


This discussion guide was shared and sponsored in partnership with Penguin Random House.

Discussion Questions

Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.

The main character, Alex, had many different roles in the book. She was a daughter, a cousin, a student, and, most important, a mother. Which one do you think was most important? How do each of these affect her character development?

Consider the antiquated stigma of women in education: How does the study of mathematics and science intertwine in the story? Why is the pursuit of education crucial for Alex, Alex’s mom, and Marla?

What is the connection between dragoning and femininity? Discuss topics such as the taboo of the female body and the history of sexism.

“Ferociously imagined, incandescent with feeling, this book is urgent and necessary and as exhilarating as a ride on dragonback.”
Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians Trilogy

“Completely fierce, unmistakably feminist, and subversively funny, When Women Were Dragons brings the heat to misogyny with glorious imagination and talon-sharp prose. Check the skies tonight—you might just see your mother.”
Bonnie Garmus, author of Lessons in Chemistry