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Some weeks life is busy, and there just isn't time to read and write lots, and so the blogging is slow. And it's been even slower for me because most of the books I have managed to finish recently didn't move me to write about them, mostly because of me not having the mental energy to figure out and express eloquently why they hadn't worked for me.
So last night I turned to a book from a series (Scholastic's Branches
) that promises to build "reading confidence and stamina," both of which I feel I need right about now.Moldylocks and the Three Beards
, written and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (Scholastic, published in paperback in Jan 2014, and in a hardcover library edition April 29) is the first book in a series--"Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe." My eyes rolled when I read the words "Princess Pink," but not so much so that I was unable to look at the cover more closely. And lo, Princess Pink seemed pretty cool.
So I tried it last night, and rather enjoyed it, and can happily recommend it. If you are a young reader who enjoys the absurd. and who is looking for something fun and easy, this is what you get here.
Princess Pink is not a princess; after seven boys, her mother wanted a one, and so that's what she was named. She hates pink. She turned her pink fairy dress into a cowboy caveman outfit. (Perhaps her hatred of pink, and her taste in dirty sneakers and bugs is a tad polarizing--does the cheesy pizza she enjoys really have to look so gross? And one can enjoy the outdoors without one's shoes stinking. But this is not a book that aims for subtly, so I shall let it pass).
And in any event, Princess Pink opens her fridge one night, and falls (literally) into a the Land of Fake-Believe, where she visits the home of three beards (not nice) in the company of a girl named Moldylocks. The whole beard premise was rather effective, and I enjoyed it.
Recommended for those who don't mind negative portrayals of pink princess stuff.
Not particularly recommended for those who don't like whimsical stories whose primary point is to make learning to read entertaining. Also not recommended for those who loath spiders. There are too many spiders for those readers to take.
Not really recommended to their adults for their own reading pleasure, although it was kind of exactly right for my tired brain last night...........and I might well find myself picking up Little Red Quaking Hood
when it comes out in August.
Note: Princess Pink's family looks to be African-American--pretty darn rare in easy-reader fantasy books! (quick--name another girl character of color in an easy reader fantasy book.............those dots are me not being able to).
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
By: Jen Robinson
Blog: Jen Robinson
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Book: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Age Range: 8-12
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a retelling of the Snow Queen by Karen Foxlee. I don't know the original story, so I can't comment on faithfulness to that tale. But Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy works well as an old-fashioned fantasy novel for middle grade readers.
Ophelia is a glasses-wearing 11-year-old girl who believes in facts, not fantasy. She is mourning the recent death of her mother, who was a novelist specializing in horror stories. Ophelia also laments that change that her mother's death has wrought in her older sister, Alice. As the story begins, Ophelia and Alice's father has dragged them to a mysterious snow-covered city, where the dad, a sword expert, is working on a sword exhibition. The exhibition is in an enormous, rambling museum full of odd artifacts. Poking around one day, Ophelia is amazed to discover a boy in old-fashioned clothes who is locked in a room. Even though she on principal doesn't really believe in this boy, Ophelia is unable to resist his request for help.
Ophelia reminds me a bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, a lonely person with smudgy glasses mourning a missing parent, confronted with impossible occurrences. But of course Ophelia is her own quirky person. Like this:
"Everything in the world can be classified scientifically. For instance, I am from the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Home sapiens. I only eat class Pisces and only if they're called sardines. I don't believe in unicorns or dragons or anything magical, really." (Page 16, to the Boy)
"Of course she couldn't save the world. She was only eleven years old and rather small for her age, and also she had knock-knees. Dr. Singh told her mother she would probably grow out of them, especially if she wore medical shoes, but that wasn't the point. She had very bad asthma as well, made worse by cold weather and running and bad scares." (Page 17)
I did find Ophelia a bit slow to catch on to a couple of major plot points, and I think that young readers will, too. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ophelia plods along trying to do the right thing, and the reader gets to feel clever. Also, having figured things out ahead of time lends a tension to the book, as the reader worries about Alice's situation before Ophelia even realizes that there is a problem.
The boy's story is told in the form of tales that he tells to Ophelia. It's more high fantasy (wizards, a village, great owls, etc.), but blends well with Ophelia's slightly more real-world story. Here's a snippet:
"And you might think a name is just a name, nothing but a word, but that is not the case. Your name is tacked to you. Where it has joined you, it has seeped into your skin and into your essence and into your soul. So when they plucked my name from me with their spell, it was as heavy as a rock in their hands but as invisible as the wind, and it wasn't just the memory of my name, but me myself. A tiny part of me that they took and stored away." (Page 21)
Lovely prose, I think! The entire book has an otherworldly, dreamlike feeling. The primary setting, the museum, is full of intriguing and sometimes creepy things (including ghosts). There's a literal clock ticking away the time in which the world can be saved. All set against a sub-text of Ophelia and her family coming to terms with the loss of Ophelia's mother.
It's a powerful book all around. And it has a great title and an appealing cover. I picked it up knowing very little about it, but certain that Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy had to be interesting. I was correct. Recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy fantasy, and anyone else who likes fairy tale retellings. Knowledge of the Snow Queen story is not necessary to appreciate the book.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook.
Unlocking the Spell
, by E.D. Baker (Bloomsbury, October 2012, ages 8-11), is the sequel to The Wide-Awake Princess, in which the titular princess, Annie, is the only one who doesn't fall asleep when her big sister falls under the magic curse ala Sleeping Beauty. It's up to Annie, the only person in all the kingdoms who magic has no effect on, to find a prince to come kiss her sister...which she does, with all sorts of fairy-tale mash-up adventures along the way.
However, the prince that Annie comes up with has one little issue--he's a bear. A prince enchanted into bear form, true, but still a bear.
So Annie, her sister, the bear, and Liam (Annie's friend from her first adventure) set out to find the dwarf who worked this malicious magic. And what follows is a pretty entertaining, though somewhat dizzying, whirl of a journey through fairy tale snippet after snippet--from Puss in Boots to the Three Little Pigs, to the Bremen Town musicians to Snow White and many, many, more....and in all these encounters, Annie's gift (?) of magic-suppression plays a part.
So basically it's a show-case of fractured-fairy tale set pieces, amusingly woven into a pretty coherent whole, but it's somewhat light on the character development (although Annie does wonder about the relationship between Liam and herself....). Annie's spoiled and ultra-beautiful sister, for instance, never becomes much more interesting or agreeable than she was at the beginning, despite all the shared adventures and dangers. So for younger readers who want fairy tale fun, it's great; for older readers, it might not have quite enough depth.
disclaimer: this one was received from the publisher ages ago, and has been languishing in my home far too long...
Read the rest of this post
Yesterday's book (The Menagerie) was one I happily recommended to nine-year olds wanting fantasy fun; today book I can also recommend whole-heartedly, but it is very different...one I think that has as much cross-over appeal to adult readers as it does to the YA readers to whom it is marketed.Fearless
, by Cornelia Funke (Little, Brown, April 2, 2013, YA), is the sequel to Reckless (my review
), which told how Jacob, a boy from our world who became a treasure-hunter in a mirrorworld where fairy tales are true, sacrificed himself to save his younger brother. And now Jacob, waiting for the fairy curse to strike that will end his life, is on the greatest treasure hunt of his life, this time looking for the last thing he hopes can save him. It is a weapon crafted by an evil witch king long ago, full of powerful (and potentially horrible) magic...and Jacob isn't the only one hunting for it. Pitted against him every step of the way is another treasure hunter, one of the stone-skinned Goyl, and their race across an alternate Europe of magic come true might well kill them both.
Fortunately, and heart-rendingly, for Jacob, he is not alone--Fox, the shapeshifting girl who almost broke my heart in the first book, is with him, and here in this book they both have come to understand that their love for each other is the bedrock of their lives. But Jacob is dying...and so desperate fear tempers their relationship. They have saved each other countless times before, but now they are stretched so painfully thin by this most horrible quest that hope would seem impossible, if the alternative was not so unthinkable.
Note: The relationship between Jacob and Fox is so real, so immediate, so beautiful, and so rooted in their complex pasts that I can't think of any other romance that comes close (except that of Eugenides and Irene, in Megan Whalen Turner's books). But it is not a physical romance (understandable, given the circumstances) so those looking for swoonish kisses should look elsewhere.
Unfortunately for Jacob's opponent, the Goyl Nerron, not all travelling companions are a good thing. Nerron is saddled with a nasty teenaged prince, along with his ass of a tutor, and a bodyguard--an inhuman Waterman, with motivations of his own, and their internal power struggles add a somewhat grimly diverting second layer of conflict to the story. Despite the handicaps who travel with him, Nerron pushes Jacob and Fox at every turn....but fascinatingly, though he seems at first to be the ostensible "bad guy" opponent of the piece, and though up to the last minute the suspense is killer, he is still nuanced, and even sympathetic....
So what we have, to summarize, is killer characters in a killer story. Added to that are episodes of fairy tale-ness that made bright vivid pictures in my mind--for instance, the book includes one of the most memorable Bluebeard retellings ever.
That being said, this isn't a fast read of magical zipping-ness. The pages turned slowly, not because I wasn't interested, but because I was so absorbed, even when I wasn't in places where I wanted to be. Those place weren't the dark scary exciting bits, of which there were many, and which I did enjoy, but rather those times when the burning ache of Fox's and Jacob's desperation surfaces. Though they must be fearless, they can't help but fear.
So no, not happy escapist fun. Not a book that kids would necessarily appreciate, though many teens might. I mysef found it a darn good book (mainly because I love Fox so very much!). I think it has stuck in my mind so firmly that, although I can imagine re-reading it, I won't need to for a long while.
Here's another review, at In Bed With Books
disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher for review
, by Vivian Vande Velde (HMH Books for Young Readers, April, 2013), puts a fun spin on the old fairy tale of the princess who kisses the frog prince. In this case, when young Princess Imogene kisses an enchanted frog one day at his request (without getting too freaked out about it--she is a sensible type, unsquemish viz amphibians), he does indeed transform back into a boy as expected. But as she kisses him, Imogene transforms into a frog! To her horror, she learns that the only way out of the enchantment is to pass the kiss, and concomitant frog-ness, on to another victim!
The ex-frog boy won't help her, the witch who enchanted him in the first place won't help her...and before Imogene can hop home to find her parents, she's kidnapped by a rag-tag bunch of travelling players. A talking frog adds zest to any performance...but every day finds her farther from home, trapped in a bucket and eating flies, when she's not reluctantly entertaining the masses.
This being a fairy tale re-imagining for the younger reader, Imogene does end up restored to her former self. But rather disappointingly, it's not through her own agency or cleverness, but rather because another character decides to help her. And so, though the premise of the story is fun, and Imogene's adventures as a frog are entertaining, it felt a tad flat in the end. I kept waiting for Imogene to hatch a Cunning Plan, or something...and it never happened--though that being said, she does come up with the cunning a ha! moment that sets her free without be-frogging anyone else!
Oh well. Imogene's likeable, the frog spell and its implications are fun, and in short, it's a perfectly nice one to give a fairy-tale loving eight- or nine-year-old.
Here's a very small detail (one sentence worth) I liked--Imogene is a fairly typical un-princessly princess--she likes to run around and not worry about getting grubby. However, she also enjoys embroidery, and it's nice to see sewing not as just one of the unpleasant things of princess girl life but as something worthwhile.
Once upon a time, First Second Books, creators of lovely graphic novels for kids, published a book called Nursery Rhyme Comics
, and it was good. Now they have filled a felt need with a second book in the same vein--Fairy Tale Comics
(coming Sept. 24), and it, too, is a book well worth adding to your child's library (after enjoying it yourself).
17 stellar cartoonists were gathered together to present, in graphic form, 17 fairy tales in kid-friendly fashion. The majority are well-known stories (Red Riding Hood, Snow White), but several are from outside the European tradition (like The Boy Who Drew Cats, which you can preview here
, and The Prince and the Tortoise). There's a nicely balanced mix of girl and boy and animal heroes. Some stick right to the traditional versions, others put little twists in (a female woodcutter, a boy who realizes he has no qualifications for king-ship, and refuses the crown, sparking a democratic revolution). In short, there's lots of fun.
Graphic novels for kids are excellent offerings for any reluctant readers you might have on hand. Some of the stories here have slightly denser text than others, but there's nothing here that's unsuitable for a young reader of 7 or 8, and many are great for emergent readers; that being said, even 13 year old boys will read it repeatedly (from personal observation) and grown-ups will enjoy it too.
This one is not just great for the reader, but also one for the budding graphic artist. When you have 17 different artists all gathered together, it's a fantastic way for a kid to see and learn different approaches to telling a story visually and rendering reality in comic form.
And I really do think this particular collection of fairy tales serves a felt need. Raising my boys, I've worried a bit about their fairy tale literacy--I've read stories out-loud to them, sure, but they've never voluntarily curled up with the Brothers Grimm, and so many of the fairy tale picture books are girl-oriented, and they weren't that interested. However, when something is presented in comic book form, its boy appeal soars....and voila, they become familiar with the stories. I hope there are more books to come!
It's my pleasure to be part of the Blog Tour for Fairy Tale Comics
, and to have interviewed one of the contributors--Bobby London
, whose story "Sweet Porridge!" kicks off the book.Charlotte
: So it's my understanding that Chris Duffy, the editor, read lots of fairy tales, picked the ones he thought would make a nice book with Calista Brill, the senior editor at First Second, and then found "cartoonists who would be a good match for particular stories" (from this interview at the Westfield Comics Blog
: More often than not, he'll just rely on his poker buddies. Charlotte
: Were you surprised to be asked to illustrate this story? Did you get a specific version of the story that specified "porridge," or did you get a chance to browse through versions with different food-stuffs (such as pasta)? Had you in fact had any previous experience drawing porridge, or other gelatinous substances, that might explain why you were picked for this one?Bobby
: I was surprised to be asked to draw the lead story, I'm usually found at the back of the bus, when I'm not busy being thrown under it. As for sampling grits, rice krispies or any other forms of breakfast cereal for the story, no, I did not; I don't think the Grimm Brothers would appreciate me changing the title of their story to "Sweet Pasta"; we're talking about the Grimm Bros. here, not Carlo Collodi
It's true I had to be adept at drawing any number of funky substances to keep my spot in National Lampoon, but for Fairy Tale Comics
I had to work very closely with Mark Martin, the talented cartoonist who translated my color layouts to Photoshop, to get precisely the right color of porridge yellow. Too much green or brown and I would have proven I taught the guys at Ren & Stimpy everything they know. And, no, it wasn't type casting; I prefer to think was chosen for this project because of my literary heritage, i.e. my familiarity with the works of Cervantes, Rabelais and Jonathan Swift.Charlotte
: I've been reading up on your past history as a cartoonist....how you have moved from comic strips for grown-ups to children's media, and now to graphic illustration for kids. Did you enjoy creating your version of the story?Bobby
: My past history is rather poorly represented in the media and generally in the context of the lives of other artists. My Wikipedia page has been vandalised - er, that is, I mean, "edited' and "rewritten" - over 2 dozen times by total strangers, fans of other cartoonists and people to whom I owe large sums of money. For instance, nobody knows that I didn't start out as an adult, have been drawing cartoons well since age 4 and submitting to Highlights For Children at 12. Of course, I was attempting to illustrate the Kama Sutra as soon as puberty set in but I couldn't have made the segue to kids comics without having a successful career illustrating for mainstream newspapers and magazines and I brought those characters with me to Nickelodeon Magazine via my comic strip, Cody
. It's a very liberating experience drawing comics for kids. Charlotte
: When you were working on Sweet Porridge, did thoughts of the youthful age of the possible audience affect choices you were making, or did you let things just happen?Bobby
: No, I don't have to think about it. My girlfriend will attest to my true age level being about 6. When writing for adults, I often used to get tired of having to shock myself so this is a holiday. And, you know, I get my nasty grownup ya-yas out drawing Dirty Duck so I don't feel compelled to sneak naughty messages into kid stuff, like some perverted creeps I know.Charlotte
: What will be next? Do you think you'll do more graphic illustration for kids, maybe even your own graphic novel?Bobby
: I'm working on an autobiography but it's not a graphic novel, I couldn't bear drawing *some* people I've had to work with over the years ( I'm a cartoonist, not a Witch Doctor). Yes, I'd love to write and illustrate a storybook or two if they'd still have me, and Chris Duffy has been nagging me to do a Cody graphic novel. Animation offers have come in, too. Believe me, it's a dream come true to still be in demand at age 63 but I think I'll have to hire an assistant. If that means I'm a sellout, so be it, I also get the Senior Discount at Chili's.Charlotte
: Thanks Bobby! And good luck with the autobiography.
And thanks also to First Second for the review copy of Fairy Tale Comics
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends, January 2012) counts both for my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list, and my fairy tale retelling list, so even though it might well have reached review saturation point by now, here it is.
In a far future earth, there is peace between the small number of terrestrial goverements that share the globe. On the bad side, there's a horrible sickness sweeping the land, and the dictator of the Lunar people (the moon was colonized generations ago) has formulated evil schemes that will take her down to earth in a bid to extend her power in a terrible fashion.
That's the big picture.
The smaller picture is that of a teenaged girl, named Cinder, who lives with her de facto step mother (not nice) and two step-stepsisters (one nice, one not), and who is the wage earner of this family. She's a repairer of futuristic mechanical things, a crafter and tinkerer. She's also a cyborg, with a robotic leg and hand being the most obvious non-human components of her make up. Unfortunately for Cinder, cyborgs are despised out caste people in her society (the reasons why this is so never became clear to me, but regardless, there it is).
So when Cinder meets the Prince of the neo-China where she lives (he needs a special robot surreptitiously repaired), she doesn't want him to know what she truly is...and it turns out that she doesn't know who she truly is either (although it's easy for the reader to guess), and suddenly her life is in danger, the Lunar dictator has arrived and wants to marry the prince, and he (charmed by her, despite the fact that he never seems to see her at her best, and the fact that they never get to actually Talk much) wants her to go to a rather special ball with him.
This being the first book of the series, it ends with people still dying of the sickness, Cinder still in danger, and the Evil Plot still un-foiled. But I'll be happy to have more of the story to read! I especially loved the fact that Cinder is a girl who defies gender stereotypes--her personal fixation during the book is the repair of a very antique car....she'd never actually wear the sort of shoe shown on the cover. So in short, Cinder was Fun, in a really enjoyable reading sense--good for light vacationing, when one can keep turning the pages, absorbed in the story despite never quite believing all of it!
viz multicultural sci fi/fantasy--Cinder herself is not from this neo-China (she was a foundling in Europe), but the prince most certainly is, and that's the setting. This neo-China-ness is not made much of, but its an integral part of the world-making. It's also a pleasant change to read a sci-fi fairy tale retelling!
Note on age of reader--this is one of those books that can be read comfortably either at the upper end of middle grade (which is to say that there's no sex, and the relationship between Cinder and the prince isn't the be all and end all point) and on into YA.
The Brixen Witch, by Stacy DeKeyser (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 26, 2012, middle grade) is a fresh and fun re-telling of the story of the Pied Piper, told from the point of view of the one boy who was not ensnared by the spell of the music that lured the other village children into a mysterious cave.
Rudi, and all the other villagers of Brixen, have known all their lives that the mountain looming above them is home to a fearful witch of great power. But Rudi is one of the few who has a chance to learn of her power directly. When he brings home a golden coin he found in the high meadow, his grandmother warns him to return it to the witch immediately--or else he will feel her wrath. So the next day he tries to take it back, but it is lost in a rockslide.
All that winter Rudi is haunted by nightmares...and then spring bring brings trouble to the whole village. A plague of rats destroys the peace and prosperity of the village, and the price the mysterious stranger charges to solve the problem is one golden coin (undreamed of wealth to the villagers).
It's clear to Rudi and his grandmother that this stranger is in league with the witch, and that Rudi must find the lost coin. But the deadline passes before he, and the music of the stranger's violin lures all the village children up and away, into the mountain.
To save them, Rudi must confront the Brixen Witch...and he finds that witches are not always what they seem to be....
This is a satisfying re-telling, adding new twists to an old story to make a seemless whole. The magic of the witch is clearly present from the beginning, though the quotidian details of village life, and mundane attempts to kill rats (which I confess was one of my favorite parts of the book--I now know lots more about historic rat hunting, and found it interesting! plus bonus ferrets!), give a solid grounding to the story. The thought-provoking twist at the end, when Rudi meets the witch, lifts the story to the truly magical.
The straight-forward storytelling, and focus on Rudi, an ordinary boy forced to step outside the safe world of childhood, makes this an excellent choice for younger "middle grade" kids, of nine or ten. It's not one for the reader who wants wild and whacky magic with Slayings and Spells and a kid who has great powers (that kid might find this one slow), but more for the kid who likes fantasy stories that one could imagine really happening.
If I were a fourth or fifth grade teacher, doing a unit on fairy tale retellings, this is one I'd most definitely be offering those kids (boys or girls) who aren't drawn to pretty dresses (and who like ferrets, though they don't actually get that much page time)! And I'd be pretty stuck to think of any others--perhaps The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, and the Sisters Grimm series. (Can you think of any other boy-friendly fairy tale retellings?)
So all in all, a nice read for me as a grown up, and one that I think fills in fine style a pretty empty niche for the target audience.
disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the author.
Circle of Cranes, by Annette LeBox (Dial, April, 2012, upper middle grade), is the story of an orphaned Chinese girl, 13 year old Suyin. Her father died, and her mother disappeared when she was little, and her paternal grandfather was so angry at this that he forbid any of the women in the village to teach Suyin any of the embroidery for which her mother was famous. So she has grown up passed from one family to another, and deprived of the heritage of her Miao ancestors--the women from this minority group define themselves in large part by their skill with the needle.
But Suyin is blessed with a preternatural skill for languages. And so, when a clearly untrustworthy human trafficker offers passage to America for one of the villagers--at a steep price--Suyin, who speaks English, is chosen to go. The expectation is that American dollars will flow back to the village, paying of the dept and bringing prosperity.
Suyin does not want to go. How can she leave her beloved cranes, the birds with whom she feels a strange kinship, birds that she has actually visited and spoken with in their own dream-like land? They had promised that someday she might be one of them--a crane woman, able to fly--but how can this dream come true in America?
The voyage is hellish--children packed for weeks in the hold of a derelict vessel. And instead of being the promised Golden Land, New York is a land of sweatshops and virtual slavery for the children, a place where brutal enforcers deal with any attempt to rebel, or escape. Suyin, who cannot sew, earns only a pittance in the garment making sweatshop, and her future seems bleak indeed.
But the cranes have not abandoned her. Indeed, they are pinning their own hopes on her. For the Queen of the Cranes was Suyin's mother, who disappeared years ago, and without her, there is no future for the clan. If Suyin can prove herself worthy (and if she can learn to sew, for the cranes, like the Miao women, pass down wisdom and beauty through their stitchery), there is hope.
Except that it is hard to be worthy when being ground down by the miseries of a life of brutal labor.
But cranes teach her embroidery, and messages written in the secret language of women, passed down through the generations, and hidden in plain sight in the stitches, brings comfort and wisdom. And finally Suyin finds the courage to speak up in public about the plight of the garment workers....and it all resolves to a happy ending.
Circle of Cranes is two stories. There is the realistic story, of the horrible working conditions faced by illegal immigrants--they work in fear of the government, in fear of their bosses, and with little hope. Prostitution is the only clear alternative for these young girls. Then there is the fantasy story, a reimagining of the story of the Crane Wife (the story of a woman torn between life as a bird and her human family is Japanese, not so much Chinese, but the author's endnote says has "roots in many Asian cultures"). Each is vivid and compelling in its own right, with the realistic elements being a grippingly eye-opening story, and the fantasy elements making a magical counterpoint.
It didn't, however, work perfectly for me. Though I was fascinated, especially by the details of the embroidery, the contrast between the two aspects of the book was great, so much so that I was not always convinced by the magical reality of it as a whole! I have to confess that a personal prejudice of my own came into play--I really get creeped out when a human person starts to sprout feathers (Suyin only has one feather, and it falls out quickly, but still). But that is just me. And the tidy resolution, in which the human identities of the crane women were revealed, seemed a bit much (all the important women in Suyin's life seem to be crane women...).
But in any event, this is one I'd give to the young (11 to 13 year old) lover of fairy tale retellings, for whom the magic of the cranes might well ring true, and whose heart might be deeply moved by Suyin's horrible experience in New York. It might especially appeal to those who want a lovely, magical daydream to lift them out of quotidian, possibly unpleasant, reality....
Final though: I think this is my favorite cover of the year so far. Isn't it beautiful?
I have always appreciated the story of the two sisters who are rewarded/punished for their behavior with flower and jewels, or reptiles and amphibians, coming from their mouths when they speak. It was a very unambiguous story--the good child is rewarded, the bad child punished. End of story. Clearly spraying those around you with flowers and jewels is better than drooling toads.Once Upon a Toad
Or maybe not.
, by Heather Vogel Frederick is a retelling of this fairytale, set very much in the present day, but with a magic that makes no concession to modernity! It's the story of two girls--stepsisters--who loathe each other. One of whom, Cat, is blessed (?) with a fairy godmother, her Great Aunt Abyssinia, who leaps in to set things right (?). Suddenly Cat finds herself speaking toads, and her mean girl stepsister, Olivia, speaks in diamonds and flowers (the species of flower changing depending on her mood, which I thought was a nice touch).
Of course, this being the 21st century, a secret branch of the government becomes keenly interested when Olivia's gift becomes public knowledge (Cat manages to maintain a charade of laryngitis). And diamonds, being diamonds, attract the interest of would-be profiteers....When Cat and Olivia's mutual little brother is kidnapped by these bad guys, the two girls head off to find Great Aunt Abyssinia, desperate to get him back, and to have their "gifts" rescinded.
It's an entertaining retelling, nicely fractured and reassembled into a coherent adventure. There are Issues dealt with--coming to terms with family relationships that are forced on you, learning to get along with, and even appreciate, people very different from yourself --but though these issues are very clearly present, even underlined, they don't take over the story (much). This is a fantasy that might well appeal to middle school girls who would generally prefer realism, and who think they don't like magic. And for those who do like magic, the contemporary setting makes a nice change. Not necessarily a deep or powerfully moving change (it's not subtle or profound enough for that), but fun nonetheless.
Way back in 2005, Wendy Mass published the first in her Twice Upon a Time series--Rapunzel: the One With All the Hair. The second book, Sleeping Beauty: the One Who Took a Really Long Nap, followed in 2006. And then Mass left fairy tales for the next few years (though she didn't leave off magic). This year Mass returned to Twice Upon a Time, with Beauty and the Beast: the Only One Who Didn't Run Away (Scholastic, middle-grade, June 2012).
And, um, it didn't work for me. Not in a horribly negative way--I have no hostile feelings at all toward it. I didn't mind reading it, and was diverted--all the things I like about the story as it exists in my mind (the bookish little sister who cares about important things, the Beast with a backstory--likable, even lovable, under the fur, the castle with books) are there. A younger reader might well enjoy it lots, what with its likable heroine, and its mix of humor and a serious, life-or-death, story.
But it felt a bit off to me. For one thing, Beauty doesn't arrive at the castle until page 212 of 282 pages, so Beauty and the Beast getting to know each other is a lot less important than it often is, and since that is my favorite part of the story, it was a disappointment. And what comes before The Meeting doesn't make up for it. Before we get there, we have lots of kind of inconsequential stuff, along with two main sub stories (told in the alternative perspectives of Beauty and the Beast), to wit:
1. A quest adventure that Beauty has on her own, the point of which doesn't become at all clear until quite close to the end of the book (and even when it's clear it doesn't seem like much point). It was a really implausible sort of quest too, involving a girl who is kind of fairy-like wanting to find something her mother lost years ago, and it doesn't have much umph to it and it beats me why anyone thought that Beauty, just cause she didn't have much else better to do and was reasonably bright and spunky, and had travelled a little, would be the perfect travelling companion for this mysterious little girl. But the baker's apprentice is going too, and pleasant, intelligent young bakers with no skills beyond baking are awfully useful on quests (?).
2. The story of how the Beast came to be a Beast, and how his invisible parents and older brother and him in Beast form all live together in the castle hoping for a girl to come marry him. This part made more sense, although the logistical details of the invisible family (they were keeping their presence secret) bothered me, and the older brother was incredibly annoying and the parents not much better.
So those two stories get the reader to page 212, when the Meeting happens, and then Beauty, being really special, manages to fall in love with the Beast at an unrealistic speed (though they share a keen interest in alchemy, which is nice for them). This disappointed me, because I like people to fall in love with slow, inexorable subtly. And then the bad witch who cursed the beast gets what she deserves.
In both these substories, the tone felt unbalanced to me--there was considerable humor, of an almost teetering on farce type, but then the reader was asked to take the story seriously regardless. Perhaps if the Beast hadn't been named Riley I would have liked it more, but Riley seems to me so 21st-century a name that from the moment I read it (page 6) I was distrustful, and it underscored the disjuncture I felt between the book's "relatable fun" and its moments of "serious historical fantasy." (The cover makes me similarly uneasy--that dress looks much more modern than I think it should, suggesting a contemporary romance).
In short, this re-telling didn't hang together in a cohesive way, but felt like piece-work, kind of randomly joined at the seams. Of course, for this fairy tale, Beauty
, by Robin McKinley, set so very high a re-telling bar that nothing else really comes close for me....
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: a New English Version
, by Philip Pullman (Viking Adult, November 12, 2012).
This is the first time I've ever written in a happy spirit about a book I haven't finished, and I feel absolutely no shame at all about not having read to the end! I'm in no rush to hurry up and read it cover to cover--instead, I'm enjoying revisiting all my old friends, reading my favorite stories out loud to my children, and relishing Pullman's fresh and friendly story-telling.
He is an author who isn't afraid to translate "pisspot" (Piß
put) as "pisspot," one who isn't afraid to let the players in the stories speak with contractions (though he plays it fairly straight--he doesn't use a specifically local speech, or the repetitive formulae of oral storytelling, as Alan Garner, for instance, does in his retellings). And my children are enjoying the experience very much as well, much more so than the stiffer versions in my own childhood Grimm.
I didn't have enough enough books as a child living overseas, so I was forced to re-read those (relatively) few books I had and that included Grimm. Though I would periodically force myself to read straight through, I had my favorites, of course--The Golden Bird, Jorinda and Joringel, The Goose Girl...stories I knew pretty much by heart.
Reading Pullman's retellings was like coming home to find the walls of my house repainted--fresh and bright and like new again, with the added bonus of some new rooms that I'd never been in before.
This isn't a book specifically for children--there are no illustrations, no sanitization--though many children will enjoy reading it; instead there is lots of fascinating commentary on the stories. This isn't one to put on the kids' bookshelf, in their room upstairs, but it's one that I'd shelve happily in the living room library, and not be at all ashamed of adult visitors seeing it there!
Giveaway: To win your own copy of this one, leave a comment (with a way to get a hold of you if you don't have contact info. on your own blog) by next Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 11:59pm. (US and Canada)
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
What if Snow White wasn't a princess, but just a girl, named Snow in Summer, loved by her papa and mama and growing up good and beautiful in the mountains of West Virginia in the mid-20th century? And what if her mama died, and her papa was so grief stricken he couldn't spare a thought for his little girl anymore...but was ensnared by the magic of a wicked woman, who became the poor child's evil stepmother?Snow in Summer
, by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2011) is that story, and these twists of time and place and character make for a fascinating retelling. It's a dark one, starting off right away in sadness with the death of Summer's mother, and working its way slowly and inexorably into horror, as Summer's evil stepmother cuts the girl off from the rest of the community, punishes her horribly, and finally, plans to kill her. For the stepmother's magic is dark indeed, and it's a greedy, hungry magic that feeds on young life....
Summer herself is aware that things are horribly wrong, but can't seem to find any way out of the maze of cruelty that's been woven around her. It's not until she runs for her life that she finds a refugee--in the home of a family of small German immigrant brothers-- and that isn't until page 195.
It wasn't one I loved. I found Summer a somewhat distant, unemotional narrator, and I never connected quite enough with her to care all that much. On top of that, I couldn't help but feel that the last bit of the book was rushed (we don't get enough time to really get to know the Seven Dwarf equivalents), and the romance at the end (not even a romance) was unsatisfactorily tacked on. But I did appreciate the freshness of Jane Yolen's reworking, and can recommend it to fans of fairy tales on that basis--it made a lovely change from the faux medieval that's so ubiquitous in retellings (though I think I'll always love those medievally ones best!).
Those looking for fairy tale retellings with pretty dresses should look elsewhere (they will find the pretty cover has deceived them), but older middle-school kids (seventh graders or so) who are almost ready to move on to darkish, more Young Adult books may well enjoy it.
Note on age: The lust (verging on attempted rape) of the teenaged boy who has been charged with killing Summer pushes this, in my mind, out of the range of younger readers.
A sample of other reviews: Semicolon
, Leaf's Reviews
, and Book Aunt
Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: the True Tale of Sleeping Beauty
, by Jane Yolen (Philomel, middle grade, Nov. 2012), has a somewhat misleading title. It is actually the tale of the family of fairies who came to the christining, and how the princess ended up falling into her enchanted sleep. And more particularly, it's the tale of the youngest daughter of this family, young Gorse.
Gorse was left home sick when the rest of her family--aunts, siblings, and parents (no uncles--they were humans and didn't stick around long, but Gorse's father is an elf, and stayed), troop off to the castle to fulfil their part in a bargain made with the human king long ago. The fairies swore an oath to do the bidding of the royal family, and bestowing Christening magic on the baby princess is part of the bargain.
But Gorse--thoughtful, brave, impetuous, and somewhat sickly--is horrified when she realizes she's been left home alone. Will she (and perhaps all her family) explode into light if the family oath isn't fulfilled because she isn't there? So off she goes by herself to the castle....only to fall into an underground maze. There a prince of the Unseely fairy court (Orybon), along with his sworn companion (Grey), and a clan of cave trolls (called "the McGargles" by the two fairy dudes) are were trapped underground by an imprisoning spell cast long ago (the trolls were innocent, unlucky, bystanders). Orybon could be free any time--all he has to do is truly repent the wickedness that he's being punished for, and then Grey and the McGargles would be free too. But repentance isn't actually on Orybon's agenda--he'd rather coerce Gorse into using her family's gift of magical shouting to batter a way through the locked gate to the upper world....
Not surprisingly, Gorse manages to save those who deserve saving, and makes it to the Christening, in time to see her mother cunningly work magic that will free her own family from their bondage to the human royals.
Surprisingly, Grey, once restored to the upper world, reverts to the age he was when he was first imprisoned--now he's a boy again, just a bit older than Gorse. And so, with this rather squicky implication that love will blossom despite the age weirdness, we leave them to their magic...
A few quick pluses--An imaginative look at a part of the Sleeping Beauty story that I've never seen looked at before. Plucky, intelligent, well-read heroine. Really cool magical book delivery system in which Gorse's father can reach into a magical book delivery slot and pull out random books, allowing Gorse to quote Through the Looking Glass.
My less plus-like thoughts: I just never do truly fall for Jane Yolen's books--they just never seem to me to fully deliver numinous enchantment, characters I can take to my heart, and truly gripping stories (and I do recognize that this is my issue--plenty of readers seem to love her just fine). In this case I was put off by how long it took for the story to actually start--there are seventy six pages of backstory in which Gorse is born, grows older, hears family stories, and tells things to the reader. Then she falls into the pit, and the pace picks up, albeit in a somewhat choppy fashion.
However, though the story now becomes genuinely interesting reading, the pit has its own problems. Although the relationship between Orybon and Grey was fraught with all sorts of dynamics (which is the sort of thing I appreciate), I can't really call it a masterpiece of subtle character building. And I know that I might be over-reacting, but I really didn't care for the patronizing, almost neo-Imperialist way the cave trolls are presented, both with the ridiculous name and the whole sense that I got of them as an exploited indigenous people, in an --isn't it nice that they can care about their families even though they are less than human-- way.
And finally, I was squicked out by Grey suddenly getting younger and loosing memories of what happened underground (which basically erases all of the character development that had happened in his life) and becoming a potential love interest for a girl who started things young enough to be his daughter.
I didn't mind reading it once, but I won't be reading it again.
Other reviews:The Book BrownieKirkus
and the Upper Hudson Library system has gathered the School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, and Booklist reviews here
Being a person with utterly unrealistic expectations, I took with me to my library booksale a bag of books to read. It didn't happen...although we did sell a fair number of books (but oh goodness, this was the booksale in which we had all the library's adult fiction discards to sell, and boy are they a drag on the market...)
But anyway, when I came home, shattered, I choose what proved to be the perfect book for pleasant unwinding-ness--Cloaked, by Alex Flinn (2011, Harper Collins, YA, 337 pages). It tells of the adventures of a young cobbler named Johnny, who is struggling to keep the family shoe repair business, based in a posh Miami hotel, afloat. With his father no longer in the picture, he and his mother are poor but worthy....and it is his worthiness that attracts the attention of the fabulously wealthy, and very hot, visiting princess. She enlists him (with the promise of marriage, and the concomitant solution to his financial problems) in a quest to find her brother, who's been turned into a toad by an evil witch.
With the help of his best buddy, Meg (who's got a few secrets up her sleeve) Johnny is off to the Florida Keys, in an adventure full of fairy tale riffs--six enchanted swans, a fox with a past, two greedy giants, a wish-granting fish, and more. Fortunately, the princess gave Johnny a magic cloak, and other helpful magics turn up, but still, it's touch and go for the toad...(and Johnny and Meg! Not to mention the six enchanted swans).
Fun and frolicsome stuff. I enjoyed meeting the familiar fairy tales in their new Floridian guise (the swan story, especially). Johnny did disappoint me by not following the fox's advice (since I know that story (the one with the golden bird), I knew he was making Bad Choices), and he was a tad "clueless teenage boy-ish" with regard to girls. But he meant well, and gets points for talking things over with his mother before setting off (I hope my boys will trust me enough to do the same). He also gets points for his serious interest in shoe design and the craft of cobbling (I like Craft Elements in my fantasy).
It's a vignettish kind of book. Flinn introduces lots of different fairy tales here, and the story moves briskly from one to the next. The downside of this is a scattering of emotional umph, but the upside is a humorous and diverting lightness. In short, this book was just the sort of diversion I needed, and I read it cover to cover in a (more or less, but I take what I can get) single sitting.
Especially recommended for the kid who loved Sarah Beth Durst's Into the Wild when they were two years younger, who now wants a more contemporary romance feel with their fairy tales.
(but the cover is wrong. It looks sort of Darkly Romancy, and it isn't; there are bits of bright young love, but no raw and tortured angst. And I kept expecting, based on the thorns, that Sleeping Beauty was going to turn up, but she didn't, and I don't recall any thorns at all).
My Unfair Godmother, by Janette Rallison (Bloomsbury, 2011, YA, 320 pages)
Tansy's beloved father, the one who taught her to love books, drove away one day when she was in fifth grade. When she's seventeen, she's forced to go live with him, his new wife, and her step-brother, and she's determined to give him no satisfaction whatsoever. Not only is she refusing to read anything, but she's going out with the worst boy she could find--a loutish vandal named Bo. And because of him, she's just been picked up by the police for vandalizing town hall...even though she was an innocent bystander.
Enter Tansy's fairy godmother, come to grant her three wishes and make everything hunky dory. Sadly for Tansy, though, Chrysanthemum Everstar is only a "fair" godmother--and she's more concerned about her toe nail polish and her job moonlighting as a Tooth Fairy than she is about Tansy. So her wish granting goes more than a little bit awry...and before Tansy knows what's happening, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are wrecking havoc in her home town.
Tansy's second wish has to be used to send them back, but she still has her third--and what can go wrong with wanting the ability to make gold? Plenty.
Now Tansy is stuck in the middle ages, stuck trying to spin straw into gold for bad King John. Her family (and their house) came back into the past with her, as did the cute police chief's son, Hudson. Her fairy godmother is utterly useless--sure, the beautiful dresses she magics for Tansy when she makes her brief appearances are beautiful, but having a pretty dress is beside the point when you've made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin that's rapidly turning sour....
If Edward Eager (Half Magic et seq.) were to have written a contemporary YA book with a bit of romance, something like this might have been the result. It has the same zany, humours insanity that happens when magic goes a bit askew...Those wishing to learn about the reign of King John won't find a particularly accurate portrayal of the past, but Rallison's take on the Rumpelstiltskin story should delight fans of fractured fairy tales. And there's enough underpinning of serious thought about how people make the stories of their own lives to keep this from being just fun fluff.
Today is the official release date of My Unfair Godmother (although it's been on bookstore shelves for a couple of days), and Rallison is giving a copy away at her blog. If you are looking for a fast, funny, read, do go enter!
This is Chrysanthemum Everstar's second appearance in print--her first book is My Fair Godmother. That one is a lot of fun too, and doesn't have to be read before this one.
(review copy received from the publisher)
A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 2011, middle grade, 226 pages)
12-year-old Elodie's heart is set on become a mansioner--an actress--in the city of Two Castles. But when she gets off the boat that had brought her from her home, she is dismayed to find that she is too poor to pay the fee to become an apprentice. In a stroke of good luck (although Elodie isn't sure of this at first), she is instead taken under the wing of the town's resident dragon.
Meenore, the dragon, is the town's detective (self-appointed), as well as a prosaic seller of toasted cheese in the market, and IT (the gender of dragons is a private matter) wants Elodie as an assistant. IT is all set to hone her powers of observation and deduction. But before Elodie can be accustomed to life in the dragon's lair, a full-blown mystery erupts.
Count Jonty Um, the kindly (but feared) ogre who lives in one of the two castles and who befriended Elodie, asks for Meenore's assistance in finding his missing dog. But the dog is just the tip of the iceberg--soon Jonty Um becomes the victim of attempted murder, and, transformed into a mouse by the power of cat persuasion (shades of Puss in Boots), goes missing. And then, when a poisoner strikes the greedy king, Elodie (a handy scapegoat) finds herself the chief suspect....
It will take all her intelligence and all her skills as an actress (and considerable help from the dragon) to solve the mystery.
It's rare to see a fantasy novel that centers around an engaging mystery, and this focus made A Tale of Two Castles fresh and engaging. It's clever, and it's fun, and the characters (especially the dragon) are interesting as all get out! I can't speak to the quality of the mystery qua mystery--I'm bad at Clues, and I (blushes) read the ending half-way through. I did, however, think that the Badness of the main Bad character was too unforshadowed and unexplained. Not a lot of depth there.
But I do rather like the message that Levine's story sends. The distrust the townsfolk feel for the ogre is a serious matter that in large part drives the plot, but this issue is left for the reader to reflect on without it being heavily underlined. And Elodie's own initial feelings for both ogre and dragon are full of the fear of the unknown and different; by the end, they have both become her firm friends. (My mind kept reading the ogre's name, Jonty Um, as gentilhomme, so I felt friendly toward him from the beginning--I wonder if Levine had that in mind!)
This is a lovely sort of book to give the younger middle grade reader (there's no romance, just a crush Elodie has on a handsome roguish type), but, as I said, I enjoyed it just fine myself. It doesn't back a big emotional punch, but it was fun. Fans of fairy tale re-imaginings will enjoy the elements of Puss in Boots that Levine incorporates--it's not exactly a retelling of that story, but considerable bits of it can be found here.
Entwined, by Heather Dixon (Greenwillow, mg/ya, 472 pages)
The Twelve Dancing Princesses is pretty much the It fairy tale of the last few years--I can think of at least four others that have recently been published.* (Kate at Book Aunt wrote in her review of this one that she can think of five....there may well be more! But Entwined brought enough that was fresh and new and interesting to make it an enjoyable read, lighthearted but with a satisfying build-up to the Darkness-to-be-Overcome-ness at the end.
Here's what I liked:
Dixon was clearly interested in just how and why the spell on the princesses were cast, and builds up to it nicely. There's a mystery behind it all, one that the Lead Princess (Azalea) must solve, before it is too late. Fortunately she has wits and spunk, and isn't afraid to use them. I liked getting to know the princesses before whole dancing thing got going.
The character of the Brave Soldier who follows the Princesses and solves everything etc. is here, but in this case, although he is a worthy man, he is definitely several rungs below Azalea and her sisters in terms of saving things, and there's not automatic guarantee he's going to end up with a princess (again, it's up to her!)
I've said it before, but 12 sisters really is too many to properly characterize each one. Dixon makes a noble effort, thought, and does convey the strong sibling bonds between them. Their father is also interestingly complex, and his relationship with his daughters (such as it is) brings in a bit of emotional depth.
Finally, I enjoyed the brightness of the story-telling. The sentences are on the shorter side, the vocabulary relatively simple, and there were moments that made me chuckle. There was also a set of very endearing magical sugar tongs...The language ("oh, stuff it!" says one sister), and the food (lemon tarts, for instance) and the Christmas ball (which sits a little uneasily beside the enchantments, but whatever) added something of a jolly Edwardian feel to the book**, which I enjoyed (especially as it is a jolliness that, as is fitting, is balanced by moments of bleakness, both emotional and viz the Conflict with Evil!).
In short, a book that's just dandy for the middle grade crowd, and a pleasant light read for the older crowd.
That being said, it is not a book for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right mood for it. If you are unsure whether you are in the right mood or not, or what that right mood might be, read Eva's thoughts on the first six pages (at Eva's Book Addiction) and see if you nod in sad agreement with her or not.
*Bother. I could think of four other 12 D.P. retellings when I started this post, and now can only remember three....Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George, The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, and Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier.
**I think I would have picked up on the Edwardian feel without having read Kate's review first, but just in case I wouldn't have, Kate said this first.
A True Princess, by Diane Zahler (Harper Collins, 2011, middle grade, 182 pages)
As far back as she can remember, Lilia has never had a good night's sleep. Because of this, and because of a tendency to day dream, she adds little value to the household of the farmer who took her in when she she was found as a baby, floating down the river in a curious basket.
But the farmer's own two children (Kai, close in age to ten or eleven year old Lilia, and Karina, who's five years older) love her, and so, when the farmer's new wife decides to send Lilia to work for the brutal miller, the three children run away together, on a quest to find Lilia's true family.
Their journey takes them into a mysterious woods, where the fairy king holds court, and there, through an unfortunate mischance, Kai attracts the attention of the king's daughter. And there in the enchanted woods he will remain, unless Lilia can find the lost cloak clasp of the leader of the Wild Hunt, hidden somewhere in the castle of the human king.
Lilia and Karina happily have no trouble getting work as servants in the castle. There the king and queen are trying to find a true princess to marry the prince...and fortunately for all concerned, Karina is beautiful enough so that he falls in love with her, and Lilia is lucky enough to have friends of her own--the royal falcons--who help her in her time of need, and all ends happily with a true princess being found, Kai being freed, and Karina's beauty winning her the prince.
It is a pleasant fairy tale retelling, one that should please nine and ten year old lovers of princess tales very much. That target audience will doubtless be pleased as all get out by the romance and fortuitous happenstances and happy ending, and enjoy the elements of the fairy tale, and added fantastical elements like the Wild Hunt, the household elf, and the mysterious falcons.
It's not so much one for grown-up readers, though. I thought Zahler did a good job making the inherently absurd princess and the pea story into something readable (although the royal sleep pickiness wasn't exactly explained). The element of the Snow Queen--the human boy needing to be rescued from enchantment--worked less well, mainly because the fairy princess was simply spoiled and petulant, and not a force of numinously terrifying power.
What bothered me most, however, was that the prince--so kind, helpful, and friendly--was never asked for help in finding the lost clasp. It would have made things a lot simpler ! And it was awfully convenient that Karina was so beautiful that she attracted the prince's attentions (although she seemed like a nice person, too, in a not particularly fleshed out way).
So--yes for the young reader, but not one that I'll add to my own collection.
Princess of the Wild Swans, by Diane Zahler (HarperCollins, 2012), is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales--The Wild Swans (which is just about the only Hans Christian Anderson story I actively enjoyed, as opposed to reading with kind of sick fascination). It's the story of a princess who must save her brothers when they are transformed into swans by their evil stepmother. I found Zahler's version very pleasant indeed.
12 year old Meriel is the youngest child of king whose land is peaceful and prosperous, and she's had a happy life running a little wild, trying to get her five older brothers to pay attention to her, and ignoring her tutor. But when the king brings home one day a beautiful new wife, everything changes. Meriel intuitively distrusts the new queen, and small snippets of observation cause her feelings of foreboding to grow. For one thing, the queen didn't know about the five brothers...and is not at all happy that they exist. Meriel can't confide in her father, who is strangely besotted. Her fears prove justified when her stepmother transforms her brothers in swans.
Fortunately for Meriel (and the swan brothers) the evil stepmother is not the only witch in the neighborhood. With the help of one brother's sweetheart, who's half a witch, Meriel learns how she can break the spell. She must make her brothers shirts from stinging nettles. For one who has never done a day's hard work in their life, this is a daunting task. To make it worse, she must not speak until the transformation is broken.
A race against time ensues, as Meriel struggles to finish the shirts before winter comes, and before the queen suspects what she is doing. But soon it becomes clear that it is not only Meriel's brothers who are at risk. The queen is plotting to open wide the gates between the mortal and fairy realms. Already sinister creatures are crossing over. If Meriel can't break the queen's enchantment, her whole country will be lost...
The biggest change Zahler makes in her retelling is that the princess doesn't have to marry, whether she wants to or not, a prince who is besotted by her mute beauty, ending in the princess almost being burned at the stake by the prince's paranoid mother. This is a good change! Keeping the focus on the evil stepmother, without introducing complications, lets Zahler tell a tighter story, and removing the whole weird marriage element lets it stay nicely middle grade (there's a bit of hinting at a romance-to-be for Meriel, but it never directly manifests itself). It was also a wise move to cut six of the original brothers. Five is plenty.
The whole story is set in and around the castle, and this gives it a rather homey feel. Instead of grand questy-ness, we get to meet brave commoners, and Meriel gains a new understanding of life outside the castle walls. The evil machinations of the bad queen play out nicely as an intrusion into the ordinary world, and the final struggle is grippingly fraught (but not so fraught as to horrify a sensitive young reader). It's easy to guess that Good will triumph over Evil, but it's rather refreshing to see that there's a price to be paid (in this case, Meriel's difficult and painful labor).
I finished the book well-satisfied that Zahler had done the story justice. I enjoyed her previous retellings--The Thirteenth Princess (12 Dancing Princess--