ARC Review: WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS by Kelly Barnhill

I received an eARC from the publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.

Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: sold as YA but reads as adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: standalone


Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950s America is characterized by a significant 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. Seemingly for good. 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, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Writing the review for WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is going to be one of the hard ones to write. This book is one of those that is just so incredible I’m lost for words.

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is a book about identity and struggling to be you in a world that has rigid definitions. Set in 1950s and 1960s America, when the world becomes too limiting for women, they transform. Some just leave, form communes, or explore the stars. Some kill abusers. And society “forgets” and buries it every time.

I loved the way it explored that pressure and the burden it put on people, Alex’s journey through protective denial and how it all spiralled into messy emotions at the end. It was such a good exploration of pent up emotions and the consequences of not talking. Plus her dad was a right piece of work, though done with a much subtler brush than could have been used (which was nice.)

It was also told with multi-media, which is a narrative tool I love. I’m academia minded (applying for PhDs right now!) so anything with that slant feels so fun and nerdy. It’s majority chapters, but there are outtakes from an academic paper, plus newspaper articles and transcripts of interviews. The mix was very good, and added extra background (on top of the “segues” in the chapters that provided explanations.)

The one thing I would say is that this book is being marketed as YA but, personally, it read as adult. Everything about it, from the tone to the themes to the way it followed through so much of Alex’s life, felt like adult to me.

It’s written as someone looking back on their life once they’re past retirement, which gives it that much older, more mature tone. The academic multi-media and example segues just add to that non-YA “in the moment” feel. It’s probably closest to A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS in tone because of all of that.

I think I loved it even more for that, as I have very much been shifting from preferring YA to adult over the past few years. I guess that’s something to bear in mind when reading it, for expectations if nothing else.

Read my review of other books by Kelly Barnhill:

Middle Grade:



4 thoughts on “ARC Review: WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS by Kelly Barnhill

  1. I’ve seen this one mentioned a couple of times on book blogs lately, but this sounds absolutely awesome. It does sound like it probably should have been marketed as adult, though. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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