On a basic level, Dragonwings is the story of Moon Shadow's multiple moves. We readers follow the travels of Moon Shadow from his family farm in the Middle Kingdom to the Company's building in the Tang people's village in San Francisco and finally to Miss Whitlaw's stable. After the earthquake, the Lees temporarily live in Golden Gate Park, then build Dragonwings in the Oakland foothills before moving into the new Company building at the book's end. When we notice that the book is not only organized according to time but also the physical space where Moon Shadow resides, we realize that Dragonwings is a quest where the dream that Moon Shadow pursues is one of family and belonging. In order to fulfill this dream of his, he believes he must be as loyal to Father as possible, which means believing in Windrider's dream of flight. Even though the dream that seems to fuel Dragonwings is that of flight and building a flying machine, the structure of the story shows that the larger dream is one of belonging within and without the network of family.
Laurence Yep adds flesh to the bones of the quest formula by grounding Moon Shadow's world in a real space and time, making this a story of historical fiction. The earthquake of 1906 actually happened in San Francisco; immigration of Chinese people to America was very restricted; the Wright brothers existed and were ridiculed for their claims of flight.
The sometimes harsh reality of the San Francisco area at the turn of the century makes a rich contrast to Windrider's fantastically mythological dream of his encounter with the Dragon King. It is by working towards his father's and his own dreams that Moon Shadow grows from the relatively inexperienced seven year old we meet in Chapter 1 to the fourteen-year-old version of Moon Shadow in Chapter 12. Not only does he gain more responsibilities as his life and the story progresses, but Moon Shadow also emotionally matures in the way that we can relate to. Our narrator's youth lends his story well to younger readers, but as with all rich literature, Dragonwings has something to offer to readers of any age.