At just seven years old, Moon Shadow Lee leaves his home in China to be with his father, Windrider, in America. He meets many male family members in Tang village in San Francisco, California. His family, known as The Company, runs a laundromat together and are very close. Moon Shadow learns how cruel the “white demons” can be as he witnesses looting and racism at its worst. He learns of his father’s dream when he met The Dragon King and realizes his love for gadgets and his dream of building an airplane.
One day, when Moon Shadow and Windrider are delivering laundry, they help a white man named Mr. Alger with his car troubles. Mr. Alger proves to be a good man, and tells Windrider about an opportunity outside of Tang village. Around the same time, Moon Shadow’s cousin Black Dog, a young man with a lot of troubles including opium addiction, beats up Moon Shadow and steals the laundromat’s money from him. Knowing that he needs to leave the village to protect his son, Windrider takes Mr. Alger up on his offer. Windrider and Moon Shadow move into a stable behind a boarding house belonging to Miss Whitlaw. Moon Shadow and Windrider take to Miss Whitlaw immediately, and Moon Shadow becomes friendly with her niece, Robin.
Moon Shadow is teased and tormented by the neighborhood boys, and begins to fear leaving the stable. Robin helps him by telling him that the leader, Jack, is afraid of blood, and advises Moon Shadow to punch him in the nose the next time he gangs up on him. The plan works, and Moon Shadow and Jack declare a mutual respect for one another. With the help of Miss Whitlaw, Moon Shadow writes a letter to the Wright Brothers, asking them about building a plane. To his surprise, they respond, and Windrider begins building a model plane.
When the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 hits, their neighborhood is destroyed, and many lose their lives. Moon Shadow, Windrider, Miss Whitlaw, and Robin work hard to recruit help and save those buried in the rubble. Fires spread and people panic. Miss Whitlaw and Robin leave town, and as the fires die down, Windrider, Moon Shadow, and the Company work together with the Tang community to rebuild the village.
After all has settled down, Windrider decides to pursue his dream of building an airplane that can actually fly. He and Moon Shadow move to a barn in Oakland, and Moon Shadow gets a job as a grocery delivery boy while Windrider spends his time building the plane, which they have named Dragonwings. They are met with trouble when Black Dog robs them of their savings, but they do not let the setback shut them down. When the plane is finally ready to be tested, the whole Company helps them pull Dragonwings up the hill, and Windrider feels loved and supported by his family. He joyfully flies the plane for a short time, and although it ends up crashing and leaving Windrider with some broken bones, he feels accomplished and full of joy. The Company takes Windrider on as a partner at the laundromat, and he sends for his wife to finally join them after all of these years.
Dragonwings is a beautifully written story about hope, family, and never giving up on your dreams. Students and teachers will enjoy this novel either in book clubs or as an independent reading unit.