Dragon Skin – Karen Foxlee

Ten year old Pip remembers the before time, the time before Matt moved into her home, the time before his “rumbling rock words” made her feel unsafe. 

Remember to disappear. Remember to stay quiet. Remember to not exist. 

She also remembers Mika (“Mick. Ahhh.”). He arrived at the end of Grade Three, two weeks after Matt moved in. Mika lived with Mrs Jarvinen, his great-grandmother. Pip shared her places with him. 

Mika believed in almost everything! And aliens were his favourite. 

Now Mika is gone and Pip’s mother is a shell of her former self, controlled by Matt and his “weather patterns”, so when Pip finds a dragon that’s barely clinging to life, she knows she needs to look after him all by herself. 

If she told her mum, then her mum would tell Matt and Matt owned everything. Her mother had to tell him everything because he was the king of knowing everything. 

Pip wants to protect Little Fella and make sure he survives. But as Little Fella begins to heal, changes are also taking place within Pip. 

That’s what happened with dragons. You started to believe stuff. 

I loved that this book was set in Australia. There was even some classic Aussie terminology: Pip ‘wags’ school, Archie’s Mum works at the ‘tuckshop’. It delighted me no end when Pip fed Little Fella Weet-Bix, although he did love spaghetti as well.

This book introduced me to a brand new swear adjacent word, ‘Fudge-nuggets’. It was also a surprisingly sensitive exploration of the way a child experiences domestic abuse. Matt is a textbook coercive controller and it made me so sad seeing Pip having to make herself smaller inside her previously safe home. I loved her for her courage and her ability to remain open with her friends despite what she’s experiencing at home.

While the reader is under no illusion about how scary Pip’s home life is, I felt the level of detail provided was age appropriate. Young readers who have experienced domestic abuse will likely see themselves in the way Pip describes her home life and will hopefully see that they’re not alone and that help is available. 

He was dangerous. Dangerous like water. He could seem calm and glassy on top but underneath he was all dark silt and weed. 

We have to find out how to make him happy. We have to solve the mystery of how to keep him happy. We have to make everything perfect. When everything is perfect, he’s happy. 

Pip hated that worse than any of it. Worse than the shouting, the rumbling rock words, the blaring television hiding the meanness. She hated the next day cover-ups. 

Although Pip’s mother doesn’t play a huge role in this book, I appreciated being able to witness her own changes, from being entirely controlled by Matt to the stages of readiness she needed to go through in order to leave her abusive relationship. The fact that this part of the story was told through the topics Pip’s mother searches on her phone showed this progression in a way that highlighted to me how difficult even contemplating leaving can be.

There was potential for an ugly cry, which I cleverly averted by stopping my reading binge abruptly with about ten pages to go. I finished the book the next day, reading a page at a time to save on tissues. 

Love. That’s what you needed mostly, to save things. And Weet-Bix. And spaghetti. 

Content warnings include domestic abuse and grief. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

How to save a dragon:
1) Assemble equipment. Water, Weet-Bix, sugar, syringe, sticky tape, scissors.
2) Believe in everything.

Pip never wants to go home. She likes to sit at the waterhole at dusk and remember Mika, her best friend. At home her mother’s not the same since her boyfriend moved in. They don’t laugh anymore and Pip has to go to bed early, turn off her light and pretend she doesn’t exist. When she finds a half-dead creature at the waterhole, everything changes. She knows she has to save this small dragon and return it to where it comes from. But how?

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