Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Society was a kids-comics sensation when it came out in 2017, winning two Eisner Awards with its tender tale of a young girl creating friendships through the art of tea harvesting. O’Neill returns to the world of the adorable tea dragons with The Tea Dragon Festival (Oni), a significantly longer prequel that introduces readers to Rinn, a gatherer who discovers a full-sized dragon asleep in the woods. “Gentle” is a word often used to describe O’Neill’s work, and while there’s not much tension in the Tea Dragon books, she draws readers in with a pleasant atmosphere and charming characters. O’Neill’s stories are cute, kind, and colorful, executed with playful enthusiasm that makes for a breezy read.
The expanded page count of The Tea Dragon Festival allows O’Neill to delve deeper into the series’ fantasy lore, particularly in the difference between Aedhan the dragon, who has significant magical abilities (including the power to present as human), and tea dragons, little critters who grow tea leaves in their fur. Inclusion is a priority for O’Neill, and The Tea Dragon Festival features multiple people of color, a gay couple, a nonbinary lead, and a deaf character who communicates through sign language, which everyone in the community has also learned. (Sign language and sign language with voice both get their own word balloon styles from letterer Crank! to differentiate these forms of communication.) Rinn is captivated by Aedhan’s ability to transform from human to dragon and male to female, and there’s a lovely scene between the two of them that explores Rinn’s feelings about their gender identity to reinforce a personal connection between the new friends.
O’Neill has gotten very good at intimate character moments, but she starts to explore the more spectacular elements of this concept in The Tea Dragon Festival. There’s an action sequence which allows her to shift into a more dynamic gear for a few pages, offering some welcome variation in the book’s tone and opening the door for more intense narratives in future installments. The big conflict of this book is resolved with a quick conversation, but there are malevolent forces out there that require more forceful opposition. O’Neill isn’t interested in exploring that right now; but she’s establishing that not everything about this world is warm and fuzzy.
There’s a lot of Pokémon in the DNA of O’Neill’s Tea Dragons, and Oni actually produced a Tea Dragon Society card game with Renegade Game Studios last year. The publisher and studio reunited this year for another O’Neill adaptation with the Aquicorn Cove board game, and it’s fascinating to see how O’Neill’s storytelling is translated into an interactive medium. If Oni is looking for another interactive interpretation of O’Neill’s work, there’s a frontier waiting to be explored in the Tea Dragon series: scratch and sniff. Scent plays a vital part in the world of tea—an opportunity for O’Neill to take this gimmick and apply it in a way that makes the story even more immersive. But until that happens, brew up a cup when you’re reading The Tea Dragon Festival for a relaxing multisensory experience.