Reading Group Center

When Women Were Dragons – Discussion Guide

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.

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.


Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. Now that you have read the entire novel, go back to page 3 and reread the letter written by Marya Tilman. How does it make you feel? Inspired? Angry? Why did Barnhill choose to introduce When Women Were Dragons with this passage?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. After the Mass Dragoning of 1955, a wave of silence and denial followed. The topic of dragons and the women who left became unmentionable. Name other historical events that compel us to remember and honor the past rather than forget.
  5. What is the connection between dragoning and femininity? Discuss topics such as the taboo of the female body and the history of sexism.
  6. Throughout the book, Alex struggles with her abandonment, responsibilities, and loneliness. When does she finally find community and family? Even then, why was it difficult for Alex to accept Beatrice’s dragoning?
  7. Sonja Blomgren is Alex Green’s first love. Although separated in their childhood, they are reunited at the University of Wisconsin. Why is Alex’s relationship with Sonja meaningful to her coming-of-age? How did Sonja’s dragoning affect Alex?
  8. The Greek myth of Tithonus is revisited a few times throughout the story. Why is it significant? Discuss the metaphor of memory, love, and selfishness within the poem.
  9. Barnhill chooses to separate the book between Alex’s point of view and Dr. Gantz’s research. In what ways are they similar? Different? What effect do you think this structural choice had on the story?
  10. Alex experiences two moments of extreme anger: in the school’s office with Beatrice and in the library with Mrs. Gyzinska. How are these two moments connected? Why do you think Alex reacted the way she did?
  11. When Women Were Dragons is a feminist story showcasing the fortitude and resilience of women. Examine moments where the patriarchy is emphasized and why it is relevant to instances of dragoning.
  12. In chapter 9, Alex describes the nationwide trauma and grief experienced post−Mass Dragoning: “. . . it brought the nation, for a moment, to its knees, reeling in a state of loss and confusion and sorrow. There were few people in the entire country who did not know at least one affected family.” How does this relate to our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic?
  13. The novel ends with Alex moving back into her old neighborhood, on the same plot of land where she had her first experience with a dragon. She chooses to fill and decorate her house with mementos of her life experiences with different people. Why is that impactful? How does it compare to her childhood home? Ultimately, why do you believe Alex chose not to dragon?


About the Author

Kelly Barnhill has written several middle-grade novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2017 John Newbery Medal. She is also the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, and has been a finalist for the SFWA Andre Norton Nebula Award and the PEN America Literary Award. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.


Other Recommended Novels

Alice Hoffman, Second Nature

Menna van Praag, The House at the End of Hope Street

Sarah Blake, Naamah

Lyndsay Faye, The King of Infinite Space

Jennifer duBois, The Spectators

Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow


Guide written by Gaitana Jaramillo