Dragonhaven - Robin McKinley
From Harry Potter with his Norwegian Ridgeback, to the recent successes of Dragonology and the Temeraire series, the idea of dragons in the real world is a hot topic right now. The Young Adult novel Dragonhaven takes as its theme the concept of dragons as an endangered species, killed off by poachers in most parts of the world and only flourishing in an isolated sanctuary in the American wilderness. Our hero is Jake, a teenage boy who has spent his entire life on the reserve; while exploring a remote region of the park, he stumbles across a sight that could mean the sanctuary's closure and the end of all dragonkind - a dying mother dragon, and the remains of the poacher she has killed... and the mother's last surviving infant. The story then follows Jake's tribulations as he attempts to keep this dragonet alive and hidden from the authorities.
The "hidden" part hinges on the book's weakest contrivance, the idea that keeping a dragon alive is the world's greatest criminal offence. This is unlikely to bother the book's target audience of teenagers, who can probably believe in any insanity committed by grown-up lawmakers, but to me it never stopped screaming "IMPROBABLE PLOT DEVICE" in big flashing letters. As I say, not necessarily a mark against the book (when I was 13 I loved the book Futuretrack 5, which on adult reflection contains some of the most ludicrously unlikely social engineering I've ever seen), but it definitely sets an upper age-limit on who will be able to enjoy it. The limitation also covers geography; Jake's first-person narration is mostly in American-teenager slang, which jarred a bit to my British ears.
For all that Jake is a male protagonist, I can't see this being read by many boys; there's very little action, and the story mostly concerns the trials of "motherhood" - McKinley's interesting idea of dragons as marsupials means that the infant dragon is extremely helpless and needs round-the-clock intensive care for the first years of its life, which is all very worthy but not really that exciting. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of children's book that wins awards - it covers Important Themes (parenting, bereavement, responsibility) in an Accessible Way - and one that many parents will doubtless buy for the edification of their offspring. It's less preachy than Pratchett's attempts at the same thing, but despite some nice ideas, it was a bit too sensible for my taste. Maybe a good present for your nieces and granddaughters.