Sep. 30th, 2012 02:47 pm
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CinderI picked this up thinking it looked like steampunk. It’s more cyberpunk than steampunk, but still fun a fun fairy tale/sci-fi mashup.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Read by Rebecca Soler.

Obviously, we know going into this story that it’s a Cinderella story. But the setting is changed to such a degree that how things are going to play out is much more in question than in a more straightforward fairy-tale novelization. Over a hundred years since the end of WW IV, Earth has consolidated down to a handful of large countries. Cinder, a teenage cyborg, lives in New Beijing, in the Eastern Commonwealth. The man who decided to take the bold step of adopting a despised cyborg died years ago, leaving Cinder in the very un-tender care of his wife. Cinder (trying hard to conceal that she’s a cyborg under her grease-stained cargo pants) supports her step-family by working as a mechanic from a tiny booth in the market square, accompanied by a cute and friendly little droid named Aiko. The very first day that we meet her, she’s visited by Prince Kai, heir to the Emperor’s Throne, who has a faulty tutor droid he wants repaired. Though Cinder’s never been the type to drool over handsome celebrities, she can’t help falling for Kai in person. Then, almost immediately, a vendor across the square screams as the blue spots of deadly letemosis appear on her. She’s airlifted from the spot; everyone visible is tested and evacuated. Back home, stepmother Audrey is busy getting her daughters, Pearl and Peony, ready for the annual ball (still a few weeks off) and insists that Cinder drop everything to fix the family hover so they can take it. Peony is the nice sister here, and she goes off to the dump with Cinder to help her look for the needed parts. Everything goes wrong when Peony shows signs of the plague and is taken away straight from the dump. Audrey is so enraged that Cinder isn’t ill as well that she volunteers her for the ongoing letemosis research program, always done on cyborgs since cyborgs aren’t considered real humans. This is where things get really interesting.

Meanwhile, we’re also hearing about Prince Kai’s point of view. His father, the Emperor, also has letemosis, and while it will still be fatal for him, at least he isn’t quarantined where his family can’t see him. For years, the Emperor has been trying to enter in peace agreements with the Lunar Queen, Lavanna. Lunars used to be humans, but in centuries on Luna developed mind control and the ability to make themselves look beautiful to others, which then increases their powers. Queen Lavanna used ruthless means to come to power, including setting her three-year-old niece’s bedroom on fire some 13 years ago, and doesn’t treat her subjects any better than you’d expect with that kind of attitude towards power. Prince Kai knows that a marriage alliance is Earth’s best hope, but is putting secret resources into seeing if he can find the princess, rumored to have escaped to earth from the burning bedroom. All through these events, Cinder and Kai bump into each other more than one would think normally possible, and have trouble not thinking about each other in between times. Rebecca Soler’s voice does well for Cinder and Dr. Erlund, the letemosis research doctor, but I found it hard to distinguish between Kai and Cinder.

There were some little things that bothered me with Cinder. Kai and Cinder are both impetuous teenagers, getting angry easily and mouthing off inappropriately. I get this in Cinder, who’s had a lifetime of neglect and built up a lot of resentment. I don’t quite buy it in a prince, though teenage readers might not have this same issue with him. The Big Reveal came too close to the end for me, especially since it seemed pretty obvious from much earlier in the story. The lunar powers never worked out quite to my satisfaction. It seems that the deal is you use them, unethically manipulating the people around you, or you don’t use them and go crazy from the suppressed powers. While there ought to be some ethical compromise, I never really felt that this worked out well. The cyborg issue was a little confusing – why would people having an artificial limb or two no longer be considered real people? But, Meyer did well with looking thoughtfully at the issues of prejudice surrounding both cyborgs and Lunars. Fair warning: this is one of those first-in-a-series books that has a perfunctory ending with lots of loose plot ends. Even with all that, I really liked Cinder and Kai and got absorbed with their problems. I can see why this has been a big hit, and will be keeping my eye out for the sequels.
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The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Why is it that the princes from all the fairy tales are simply called Prince Charming? According to this book, it’s because the bards are more interested in a good story than in getting the facts right. We start the book by meeting a different Prince Charming, one chapter at a time. Prince Frederic, a risk-averse dandy, loses bold Ella when she realizes that marrying him wouldn’t be the adventure she was hoping for. Rapunzel leaves Prince Gustav when she realizes he’s more brawn than either brain or heart. Handsome and arrogant but kind-hearted Prince Liam is driven out of two kingdoms when he tries to break off his engagement with the shallow and cruel Briar Rose and she in return has a bard make up songs lambasting him. Loopy Prince Duncan, happily married to Snow White, gets literally lost when she asks for a little space and he wanders off in the woods. All four of the Princes have ballads written about them in which they are called Prince Charming. They meet, and get involved in heroics involving stopping the evil witch Zaubera’s multiple evil plans, and dealing with the child robber king Deeb Rauber. To give a small degree of gender balance, both Ella and Liam’s little sister Lila are on their own heroic missions, which may or may not intersect with those of the Princes Charming.

The whole thing is written in a slapstick style, with cartoonish illustrations chapter titles like “Prince Charming Defends Some Vegetables” and “Prince Charming Annoys the King”. The four princes started out so very one-dimensional that it was really hard for me to feel enough sympathy for them to enjoy the story. At the halfway point, I was still considering giving up on it altogether. However, soon after that, they begin to come together as a team and experience Personal Growth that makes them both more sympathetic and interesting. There are just enough plot threads left dangling at the end to expect a sequel. I still prefer Sondheim’s Into the Woods or the adult graphic novel series Fables for massive fairy tale integration, though both of those are best for adults. However, middle grade children looking for a light (if lengthy) read will probably like this. It’s full of action scenes that will appeal to boys – I could see my son eating this up. Readers could also try the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley for a modern fairy-tale integration for middle grade readers.

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This book recently hopped in front of me and reminded me that I’d wanted to read it when it first came out a couple years ago.

Toads and DiamondsToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson.
The original Toads and Diamonds tale by Perrault was in the big pale yellow book of fairy tales that I had growing up, and I remember it being one of my favorites. Thinking back, I wonder why – who would really want either flowers and jewels or toads and snakes falling out of her mouth? This novelization sets the story in a place very like India during the Mughal Empire, when the newcomers were not the English but monotheists. Diribani lives with her stepmother and stepsister Tana, in a house that is empty of servants and furniture since the death of Diribani’s merchant father. They’re a tight-knit family, despite not being blood relatives. One day at the well, the beautiful but clumsy Diribani prays to the Serpent Goddess and is granted a wish. She wishes for beauty, and finds herself with jewels and flowers dropping out of her mouth when she speaks. Tana, plain but kind, goes next and wishes for security for her family. She is given the gift of sacred snakes and lucky toads falling out when she talks. The gifts throw their lives into chaos. The governor of their town follows the new religion, which considers all magic evil witchcraft, has placed a bounty on snakes, formerly kept as rat catchers in every house, and wants to take Diribani hostage for the jewels. Perhaps luckily for Diribani, the prince is passing through and decides to take her instead. Meanwhile, Tana must flee for her life, taking temporary oaths at a monastery despite an unexpected offer of marriage from the boy she’s always secretly admired. Now separated from everyone they know and trust, both sisters must work out on their own what the goddess meant for them to do with their gifts. Neither of them doubts that they are gifts, not curses, meant for the good of all those around them – but how best to use them, and stay alive in the meantime? Woven through is the struggle to forge some sort of understanding between the rival religions, as well as the culture of the ancient stepwells of India. These I had never heard of before, and am now quite curious about. The ending might be a little easily romantic, but overall, I found this a beautiful retelling, faithful to the original while adding new depth to plot, characters and setting.
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Fairest of AllWhatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski.

In this light modern fantasy, practical Abby and her trouble-prone younger brother (ages 10 and 7, respectively) move to a new town. In the spooky basement of their new house, they find a large mirror, which turns out to be magic. In fact, it takes them (Abby most reluctantly) right to the middle of the tale of Snow White. Younger brother, a bit quicker thinking than Abby, recognizes this immediately – the wicked stepmother is trying to give Snow White the apple. At first they congratulate themselves on having saved Snow’s life, but then they realize that they’ve also deprived her of her happy ending. On the other hand, does Snow really want the happy ending the storybooks have assigned her? This is clearly the beginning of a series, not necessarily deeply thoughtful but without any painful clunkiness. I’d recommend it mostly to girls of the target middle grade age. Except that Elaine_Alina should read it, maybe to her daughter. Because really, how often does the heroine win the day by studying property law?
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The boy and I had just finished listening to the harrowing tale told in Gregor and the Marks of Secret, so harrowing that I wasn’t up to listening to the next one right away. Meanwhile, the third Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place had just come into the library, and we were first in line for it. We certainly didn’t want to start a new longer work with that coming any day, so I checked out a couple of these short Rabbit Ears CDs.

Mose the Fireman and StormalongRabbit Ears: American Tall Tales Volume 3: “Mose the Fireman” and “Stormalong.”
Rabbit Ears: World Tales Volume 4: “The White Cat” and “The Fool and the Flying Ship”

The Rabbit Ears stories are all CDs with two stories of about a half hour each, narrated by famous actors. In this case, Michael Keaton reads “Mose the Fireman”, John Candy “Stormalong”, Emma Thompson “The White Cat” and Robin Williams “The Fool and the Flying Ship”. All of the actors seemed to really enjoy the idea of narrating a children’s story, letting loose with a wide variety of characters and appropriate expression. “The White Cat” and “The Fool and the Flying Ship” are very contrasting stories. Thompson’s aristocratic tones tell the story of a younger prince whose friendship with a white cat ripens into love over the course of three years and how they save each other from their differing dilemmas. This is accompanied by beautiful original flute music. “The Fool and the Flying Ship” is narrated with a Yiddish accent and told as slap-stick comedy, with exaggerated expressions. Here, the fool wins the princess without ever really getting to know her, but the antics of the fool and his motley band of lower-class super-powered sidekicks are highly entertaining. The klezmer music backs up the story perfectly. The White Cat and the Fool and the Flying Ship Mose the Fireman and Stormalong are two American folk heroes with whom I was previously unacquainted, despite having read compulsively in the 398s in childhood. Mose’s tale seems to be set in the Roaring 20s, to judge by the music, while Stormalong’s tale takes place a few decades earlier, as sail was making way for steam. Both are entertaining tales of the unbelievable exploits of a fireman and a sailor. Each of these four tales was just about the perfect length to take us one way of the commute to and from school. The seven-year-old was excited by the stories, and the two-year-old loved the music, which meant that for once, everyone was happy. The length means finding a new audio book every day for us, but could be perfect if you have shorter commutes or just want a story to listen to at home. In any case, the stories are fun and the production values high.

Cross-posted to and .
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Quick, it's been almost two months since I posted anything about fairy tales!

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu This is a Snow Queen retelling. I don’t actually like many Hans Christian Anderson stories, but this retelling made me fall in love with the story. Hazel’s been having a rough time lately, what with her parents’ recent divorce and having to leave her beloved school. Still, she’s at least at the same school as her best friend, Jack, whose home life is also less than stellar. Hazel’s creativity and immersion in fantasy worked well at the old school, but she can’t seem to make friends with classmates or teachers at the new school. And then – we know, but neither Hazel nor Jack do – a magic mirror shard pierces Jack’s eye and freezes his heart. One day, he stops talking to Hazel, and the next, he’s gone. Both Jack and Hazel and Hazel and the new friend her mother is trying to get her to make had been making up a story about the impenetrable fortress of a winter snow queen-type person – where would she live? What would her motives be? And then Hazel’s rival for friendship with Jack tells her that he saw Jack climb onto a sled with an odd-looking woman dressed in white and drive off into the woods. Hazel knows that she is the only one who has a chance of rescuing Jack. She sets off into the woods, woefully underprovisioned. As in “Into the Woods”, the woods by her sledding hill turn into the Woods, into which all real and fairy tale characters wander eventually. It’s full of fairy tales characters and conventions, but while she recognizes pieces, the rules are not quite what she knows from her books, and she must use her wits and work hard to keep her goal close to her heart as she journeys.

When I was a lonely child, I hated books that showed children going from isolated to popular over the course of a single book. So unrealistic! One of Hazel’s challenges here, with or without Jack, is to be able to make more friends. She starts out with no friends besides Jack and ends with having one other friend outside of school and one person at school who will talk to her sometimes, an improvement that makes a nice character arc while still feeling realistic. Hazel is adopted from India, but her parents always focused the fact that they wanted her so much they went to the ends of the earth to get her rather than teaching about her Indian heritage. This becomes an issue for Hazel to explore in the woods, though it’s clear that Hazel being Hazel is more important than Hazel being a different skin color than her parents and not knowing her birth mother. Just as important is her getting to an age where having a boy for a best friend is starting to make people giggle and ask if Jack is her boyfriend. Fans of children’s fantasy will enjoy Hazel’s references to the classics, even as she’s part of a story that isn’t quite any of those. Breadcrumbs is a satisfying fantasy story with well-integrated real-world issues and a delightfully determined heroine.
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I found this one using a keyword search looking for books similar to Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude. My mother laughed so hard she almost couldn’t finish reading it to my son, who then took it in to school for his class. It got a 100% thumbs-up rating from them – not even a single thumbs sideways.

An Undone Fairy TaleAn Undone Fairy Tale by Ian Lendler. Illustrated by Whitney Martin. Once upon a time, a beautiful princess was trapped in a tower. Her wicked stepfather, the king, locked her away so that she could bake her famous pies only for him. “Not even her mother could help her.” Naturally, princes and knights came to rescue her, but they all failed the three impossible tasks her stepfather set for them. Up until this point, straightforward fairy tale, told in a fancy typeface. And then, things start to go wrong. The brave, famous Sir Wilbur arrives to meet the king – and finds that he is wearing a doughnut instead of a crown. This, we are informed in plain sans-serif typeface, is because we, the readers, are reading too quickly, and the artist didn’t have time to fill in a proper crown. The artist is right there, in fact, hanging from some scaffolding trying to paint the wall behind the king. Now we are begged not to turn the page – the artist hasn’t gotten his delivery of horses or armor yet. But of course we do, and in the subsequent pages, poor Sir Wilbur is forced to fight a dragon which turns out to be a pretzel, riding on a fish and wearing a pink tutu. Things get more and more out of hand, with the drawings looking less and less polished, until the princess takes matters into her own hands, for a very silly happily-ever-after ending.

Cross-posted to and .
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Another delightful recommendation from my good friend Dr. M., who loved it so much that she read it to me over the phone, despite much of the charm of the book being in the illustrations.

book coverOnce Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude written and illustrated Kevin O’Malley. Illustrated by Carol Heyer. Illustrated by Scott Goto. Two children, a girl and a boy, are assigned to give a school report on their favorite fairy tale. Only as they couldn’t agree on a favorite fairy tale, they decide instead to write their own. The girl starts, telling a romantic tale of a sweet and beautiful princess whose beloved unicorn ponies are tragically being kidnapped by a giant. Then the boy interrupts, having a cool motorcycle dude come and battle the giant every night while the princess spins golden thread for him in payment. Then the girl interrupts again, incensed at her princess’s new role. Princess Tenderheart now goes to the gym to pump iron and becomes Princess Warrior, so she can rescue her ponies herself. From here, the interruptions from one side and the other become more and more frequent, until the children find a story and characters that they can both enjoy. The story is funny to start with, and the illustration really make it. O’Malley draws the two children in a fairly realistic cartoon style with pen and ink. Heyer illustrates the girl’s story in oil paintings that look like a mash-up of Beautiful Fairy Tale book and Barbie-level cheesy girl appeal. Goto illustrates the boy’s story in bright, vigorous pastels where the motorcycle dude and his motorcycle vye for space with the hideous giant and exploding volcanoes. This book was a hit with everyone who saw it, including adults, my son and his K-1 class, and my two-year-old.

Cross-posted to and .


Dec. 20th, 2011 08:09 pm
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This was the last Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling that I’ve read. I haven’t found any others, so unless one of you, dear readers, knows of another one, this is the last of the series.

book coverEntwined by Heather Dixon. Dixon boldly sets the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the Victorian era, which we can tell by the clothes and the customs. (The cover, while beautiful, is much less historically accurate than the story.) She manages to give many more of her twelve princesses distinct personalities, better than any of the other books except for Wildwood Dancing, where there were only five sisters to keep straight. Blessedly, she even named them alphabetically - Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Evening Primrose, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale and Lily – making them the first dozen princesses I was actually able to keep track of. But onwards to the story. It’s the night of the Christmas Eve Ball. Azalea, the oldest princess, is hosting, due to Mother’s illness. Before the ball starts, Mother calls Azalea to her room and makes Azalea promise on her mother’s silver handkerchief to take care of her sisters, as well as talking about dancing. At the ball, Azalea meets a somewhat rumpled but very kind young gentleman, Lord Bradford, and it’s immediately clear that this is not the last we’ll see of him. Interestingly, Azalea is princess in a figurehead monarchy. The kingdom is run by the Parliament, which gives the royal family an allowance that isn’t quite enough to keep up the rambling, ancient palace. They also make the final choice on the spouse of the heir, which will make our Princess hesitant in matters of the heart. The country is run this way in large part in reaction to the defeated High King D’Eath, who in ancient times (Medieval? Enlightenment?) ruled the kingdom about as kindly as one might expect, given a name like D’Eath. He it was who built the palace, filling it full of secret passages and enchanted objects. Most of these are no longer in the castle, though one animated silver tea set remains.

The ball goes all right, despite all of the younger siblings hiding in the Christmas trees to watch. But in the morning, they discover that their mother has died, leaving new sister behind. The King – their father, though they call him the King – does not tell them in person. He only tells them that they will be in strict mourning for a year: All black clothes. All windows draped, all clocks stopped, no going outside except for church or Royal Business, and no dancing. But dancing is the girls’ sanity, an essential part of their relationship with each other and with their mother. So when they discover that there is a secret passage in their room that takes them not to a storage room, as they’d been told it would, but to an obviously enchanted dancing pavilion, they are delighted. They don’t ask very many questions of the pale, obviously magical man who invites them to come every night, saying that he is the Keeper of the castle. The reader will likely be more wary of him, even if he tells them that he is an ancient enemy of the High King D’Eath, trapped by him in the walls of the palace. He starts out creepy and gets truly scary, though at first he only reveals this side to Azalea.

In spite of this, the book felt much lighter than Wildwood Dancing - still probably appropriate in the teen books, rather than youth, but leavened by comedic attempts to find suitable partners for all three of the oldest sisters. There is a lot of discussion of the actual dances, so this is the book I’d recommend to dancers. (It’s rather funny how many books about dancing princesses gloss over the actual dancing.) There’s also a lot of family relationships, as the girls try to negotiate a new relationship with the King, now their only parent, no matter how cold and strict. This turned out well, though I found the King’s conversion to kindness a little too glib to be completely convincing. In any case, the story came to an exciting and satisfying conclusion, with Azalea doing a significant part of the rescue of the sisters herself. I think it’s being marketed as a teen book because of the focus on romance, though I didn't find anything that would be inappropriate for older middle grade readers.

Fans of the book can find delightful princess Azalea paper dolls on the author’s website.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverSnow in Summer by Jane Yolen. Master (mistress?) storyteller Jane Yolen moves the story of Snow White to 1940s Appalachia. For all the fairy tale novels that I’ve read, this is the first retelling of Snow White. And while I find the basic fairy tale over-told to the point of insipid, this was a heart-wrenching retelling. Snow-in-Summer, called Summer by her family, is just seven when her mother and new baby brother die together. Her father, formerly a happy, musical man, is unable to go on with life. He drifts aimlessly around their heretofore lush farm, and spends every evening at the grave site. The only person who takes care of Summer is Nancy, her father’s old high school friend. One day, following her father to the graveyard, Summer sees a pale woman in bright red lipstick come out of nowhere to sit with her father. Soon, they are married. Summer distrusts her new Stepmama from the start, but she is so desperate for someone to love and pay attention to her that she is willing to do almost anything to win her approval, even letting herself be called Snow instead of Summer. Instead of waking up with Stepmama’s potions, her father gets worse, often not even getting out of his chair. Stepmama is a truly wicked stepmother, starting out with classic abusive moves such as not allowing Summer to see anyone outside the house and doling out extreme punishments, such as cleaning hot ashes from the woodstove with bare hands, for infractions minor and imagined. Things only go downhill from there. Most of the story is told from Summer’s point of view, but the occasional chapter will be from Nancy or Stepmama’s point of view. Interestingly, Nancy and Snow-in-Summer both narrate in the past tense, while Stepmama mostly talks about what she plans for the future – plans that from the beginning involve the deaths of Summer and her father, but only if they don’t go along with her plans. She often closes her chapters with “After all, I’m not a wicked woman,” though her plans include taking years of her life in exchange for teaching Snow the Craft, without ever making it clear to Snow that that’s what she’s doing. There are hints of good magic in Papa’s resistance to Stepmama and in Nancy trying to help Summer protect herself, but Stepmama is the only full-on conscious magic user in the story.

Summer’s narration combines her present knowledge of how much she underestimated Stepmama with a strength and humor that keeps the bleakness of the story from being completely overwhelming. It’s three-quarters of the way through the book before Summer runs away from the Hunter she intuits that Stepmama has hired to kill her and finds the dwarves, mining their own little mine. In the traditional tale, Snow White keeping house for the dwarves never made much sense – a young princess knows how to keep house better than life-long bachelors? And wants to do it? Here, Summer may only be twelve, but she’s effectively been managing her father’s house for the past five years. She’s really good at what she does, able to introduce improvements like a bang-up home garden for the dwarves who are otherwise pretty competent. I was proud of Summer both for having the knowledge and the guts to do such good work for the dwarves, rather than presenting herself as just a charity case or trying to get back to her father. It was a long, hard battle for her, and the victory at the end is hard-won and sweet, with Summer herself the primary force behind her rescue. I’m sensitive to children suffering in a way that I think children themselves might not be, which made this difficult for me to read even while it was so compelling that I finished it in a day.

Cross-posted to and .
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The bloggers at The Book Smugglers reviewed The Princess Curse the same week I did, and said this was their favorite Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling. I’ve got one more retelling on hold – also mentioned in their post – and then I’ll be out, unless anyone has any further retellings they want me to read.

book coverWildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier I’m including this book in my series on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, though it doesn’t have all the parts of that story and does have bits of a good many others put in. The story is told by Jena, the second oldest of five sisters aged sixteen to five. They live with their merchant father in an old castle, Piscul Dracului, in Transylvania. It’s nominally fifteenth century, but though I didn’t encounter any glaring errors in the time, the place setting felt much stronger than the time setting to me. Early on, Jena tells us about a formative event in her life, when she and her two older cousins, Costi and Cezar, were playing in the wood. They decided to be King of the Lake, King of the Land and Queen of the Forest. It was supposed to be just a game, but then Drăguţa, the legendary witch of the woods, appeared, offering to grant them their wishes for real. Costi drowned in the lake that day, and neither Cezar nor Jena has been the same since. Already we can tell that this is a much darker retelling than many.

The true story takes place ten years later. Jena’s faithful companion is a pet frog, Gogu, who rides on her shoulder and talks directly into her mind, where no one but she can hear him. Every month on the full moon, she and her sisters put on their finest clothes, hold their hands up to make a star with the shadows on the wall, and follow a secret passage to the Wildwood. This both is and is not the same woods outside their castle, but here they meet with the fairy folk – trolls and dwarves and all sort of people. They dance and talk; scholarly Paula mostly spends the time discussing arcane magical subjects with like-minded folk – and go back home in the morning refreshed by the contact with beauty and magic, though they know enough to be very careful in the magical realm.

This has been their life, and they have loved it, but things are changing. Their mother died long ago, and their father is in poor health. He goes off to the coast in hopes that the change of climate will heal him, leaving the girls and a pair of aging retainers in charge of the castle and surrounding lands. Money will be tight and finding enough manpower difficult, but Jena, who has been learning accounting at her father’s side her whole life, is determined to do a good job running the family business. Cousin Cezar starts visiting more and more often. He soon takes their money box and tells Jena that he will run both their personal and business finances. When the girls go to their Wildwood Dance that month, there is a group of Night People there, the pale people rumored to drink blood. Tati falls in love with one, and increasingly withdraws from the outside world. Both of these are frightening, and of course things go downhill from there. What amazed me about the writing was that even though there were vampires – and they were scary and threatening – the part that gave me insomnia was Cezar taking over the girls’ lives, saying he was doing it out of love for them while clearly doing it for the love of power. He was a real abusive human, not a fairy-tale villain, and that made him terrifying. Though I’m not a horror fan myself, this is what my husband says of the best of Clive Barker’s writing: there might be supernatural horrors galore, but nothing is scarier than a human gone bad.

When one of the Night People kills a village girl the same age as Jena, she feels responsible. Cezar, meanwhile, takes it as a sign that the Wildwood is encroaching too far on their lives. He determines to wipe out all of the Wildwood folk, by chopping down the entire forest if necessary. He starts nightly hunts with bands of villagers through the forest. Even though these roving bands make the monthly walk through the night forest more dangerous, Jena is determined to do whatever it takes to save both her sister and the Wildwood. The leader of the Night People has promised to give her answers, but can she trust him even that far? Her activities are not unnoticed by Cezar, who decides that the girls must be in league with the Night People, and who decides he will lock them in their rooms with a man to follow them if they won’t talk.

The question that Twelve Dancing Princess novels must answer is why the girls do it. This novel approaches the whole story inside-out from the usual telling, and so it’s clear from the beginning that the girls go every month because the Wildwood is the place they feel most at home. Instead, Wildwood Dancing is a quest for independence and self-determination, for a way to find in the real world the fulfillment they find in the Wildwood. Both the human and the magical characters feel particularly real. It might be a little scarier than I usually like my fairy tale retellings, but it was definitely beautifully done, with strong characters in a world of humans and magic both beautiful and terrifying.

Cross-posted to and .
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My series on the Twelve Dancing Princesses continues with this one, the one that started it all for my good friend Dr. M., when her toddler pulled it off the shelf at the library.

book coverThe Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler. Once upon a time, a king fell in love. He built a palace of pink stone for his queen over the bright brook where they had their first meeting, and prepared for a happy ending and heirs to the throne. But his wife bore daughter after daughter, all unable to inherit the kingdom. The clear stream stagnated into a lake and the sparkling castle grew dank and moldy. When the queen died bearing a thirteenth daughter, the king was outraged and refused to allow her in the royal nursery. Little Zita was raised as a servant in the kitchen, only gradually getting to know her own history and, later, her sisters, all of whose names start with the letter A. She makes friends with Breckin, a stable boy, and starts having secret weekly sleepovers in her sisters’ chamber. Though she revels in her sisters’ love, Zita desperately longs for acceptance by her father as well, and this is not forthcoming. He is angry enough that his daughters do not speak to any of the princes that come as suitors, even when all eligible princes have returned home offended. Secretly, they tell Zita that they are unable to speak, and are heartbroken to think that they may never be married. The oldest, Aurelia, has a long-distance flirtation with a soldier on horseback who turns out to be Breckin’s older brother from the military, Milek, but this seems doomed. The king banished magic and magic-makers from the kingdom years earlier, so when, three-quarters of the way through the book, the princesses suddenly begin to fall asleep and sicken even as their dancing shoes are wearing out, the king will not hear that it might be a curse. Zita and Breckin, exploring in the woods together, find the hidden cottage of a friendly old witch, Babette, who was friends with the queen before magic was banished. Together, they come up with a plan to try to solve the mystery and save the princesses before it is too late.

This is a retelling focused on the people and the family relationships. While there are offended princes from other kingdoms, this little kingdom’s existence isn’t being threatened. Instead, Zita and her friends battle to save her beloved sisters, even though the only reason she isn’t under the curse is that she isn’t quite considered a real princess. alternate book coverAnd though Zita has been rejected by her father, she’s still allowed to live in the palace and is known to be his daughter, so that the book never ventures into the dicey-for-children area of disputed paternity. At the risk of a slight spoiler, the problem in the end turns out to be a curse placed by an evil magic user (I know you’re all shocked), but one who would never have gotten so far if the king hadn’t successfully kept nearly all the good magic users out of the kingdom. The reveal of this person happens at the end, while our relationship is with the kind and gentle Babette, who encourages Zita to push and trust herself and her friends. This makes the book an excellent counter to the “witches are always evil” theme found in so many fairy tales. While there is a little romance, the love that Zita herself experiences is mostly friendship and love of family, and there is nothing inappropriate for children. This is a solidly enjoyable retelling for middle graders on up. (Note the alternate cover that Google Images found - where is it from? Is one better? Do the different covers change the way you think about the book?)

Cross-posted to and .
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So far, my series on The Twelve Dancing Princesses has focused on novel-length retellings. I love novel retellings, but I also love picture-book versions of fairy tales. Picture books have a few important differences from novel-length retellings. There is the opportunity for lots of beautiful artwork, for one. A novel has to flesh out the characters to work while fairy tales in their short and historical form are meant to have fairly blank characters onto whom listeners can more easily project themselves or their neighbors. A picture book can choose whether to leave the characters blank or draw them more fully. Finally, an issue that I noticed especially with this particular story: A novel has to address just why it is that twelve royal girls of adult age are dancing their kingdom into poverty. Are they dance-mad or under some sort of spell? The shorter versions go by so quickly that it’s enough to solve the mystery of where the princesses go without needing to know why. Those interested can read the original Grimm’s version from Project Gutenberg.

Ray book coverThe Twelve Dancing Princesses retold and illustrated by Jane Ray. Jane Ray is one of my absolutely favorite illustrators. I have yet to see a book of hers that I didn’t love the illustrations for, and this is no exception. Her two-dimensional folk art style is filled with rich colors, arching branches, and bright spots of gold. Based on the variety of hair and skin colors and body shapes, her princesses had a variety of mothers, though she doesn’t get into that. All the princesses are drawn as beautiful, including the two with glasses and the one with a double chin and non-traditional-princess figure. Where most books just don’t show the hero when he’s in the invisibility cloak, Ray’s is there, cleverly shown in shadowy folds that are a puzzle to find. The retelling is fairly straightforward, leaving characterization to the illustrations. It leaves out the bloody bits of the original, and visually explains the youngest, who guesses that they are being followed, not being the one to marry the old soldier by her looking too young to be married. The only addition to the original story is, at the very end, having the new queen hire a royal cobbler and increasing the opportunities for dance throughout the kingdom (yay, dancing!) This is a perfect version for those who like their art beautiful and their retellings traditional.

Corvino book coverThe Twelve Dancing Princesses retold by John Cech. Illustrated by Lucy Corvino. Cech’s retelling adds some nice characterization and a more animated tone to the storytelling. Here, rather than being beheaded, earlier princes are eventually found in the mystical kingdom, from which they eventually escape to marry the other princesses. As in Jane Ray’s version, if any reason for the dancing is to be found, it is that the princesses love dancing, and so the eldest princess makes continued dancing a condition of her marrying the soldier. Lucy Corvino’s illustrations are beautiful, lively swirls of color, very different from either of the other two picture book versions here. While I like the style in general, the historical purist in me could not get over her combining fifteenth-century hairstyles with nineteenth-century dresses. I know it’s fantasy, and it shouldn’t matter… but somehow it does. It is still really beautiful.

Sanderson book coverThe Twelve Dancing Princesses Retold and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. This version is the one that I bought for myself with my own money when I was in high school. It’s still in print, and, while not the first version in the list of picture book adaptations on Amazon, is the first one with a creator name that suggests itself in the search box – not at all bad for a retelling over 20 years old. Sanderson, like Ray, both retells and illustrates the story. The pictures are the lush, detailed oils that you expect of a quality fairy-tale retelling. It’s clearly set in the 15th century – a note even says that she research 15th century dance to try to get the dance pictures right, though not all the poses look right to me. I can tell by the hairstyles that this was done in the late 1980s, alas, though I am sure that this would not even be noticed by a child reading this, or even necessarily by a person less familiar than with the Middle Ages than my fellow medieval buffs and I. Her princesses are a little older and her hero is just a youth looking for a job rather than a retired solider. That makes the youngest and the hero the right age to be interested in each other. She names them Lina and Michael and lets them develop a romance over the course of the story. The princes who tried previously are given a potion to freeze their hearts and leave nothing but the love of dancing. She makes a few other twists to the story, like the princesses giving Michael an official invitation to the secret ball to try to trap him. A beautiful version, with the storytelling updated to slightly more modern ideas of relationships. In the end, I think, the princesses let Michael share their secret because of the relationship they’ve developed with him rather than just being busted.

Cross-posted to and .
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When I was in high school, I spent my hours mowing the lawn dreaming up fairy tales with strong heroines and wrote them for all of the school creative writing assignments. In my first one, Prince Percival (somewhat embarrassed by his name) and the princess whose name I’ve now sadly forgotten fell in love after Prince Percival fell in the fountain.

book coverPrincess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George In this retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, young Galen grew up in the army, his father a soldier and his mother a laundress. Now, his parents dead and the war between Westfalin and Andalusia over, the only hint he has is the name of his mother’s sister in the capital city. On the way there, he meets a mysterious old woman who gives him a cloak of invisibility and, when she sees him knitting, special balls of wool, one black, one white. He thinks she’s a little touched, but he takes them to humor her. Once in town, he discovers that his mother’s sister lives in one of the nicest houses in the nicest neighborhood in town. Her husband is the official gardener of the Queen’s Gardens, and Galen, despite his lack of experience, is taken on as an under-gardener. There, he inadvertently startles Princess Rose, the eldest of the twelve flower-named princesses, who falls into the fountain she was gazing at. The resultant illness ends up infecting all of her sisters and, since they can never take a night off from their dancing, lasts for months and becomes quite serious. Nevertheless, Rose and Galen are taken with each other. In typical romance style, the story alternates viewpoints between Galen and Rose. From Rose, we learn that they have inherited this curse from an ill-considered bargain their now-deceased mother made with the King Under Stone. Not only are the princesses being worn out with dancing, but they are being groomed as brides for the twelve sons of the King Under Stone. And they are incapable of telling anyone anything about what is happening to them. Things go from bad to worse when their desperate father declares that any prince who can solve the mystery can marry a princess of his choosing. The princesses are humiliated, but even worse, the failed princes all end up dead soon afterwards, with their grieving countries suspecting witchcraft. Even though he knows he can’t expect the promised reward for himself, Galen goes against his uncle’s wishes to try to help the princesses. Though I felt that his solution was maybe a little simplistic and some of his research was left out, it worked quite well overall. The characters were nicely sketched, the country concrete, the villains suitably creepy, the pacing good, the language lovely. The romance is squeaky clean, just enough to make middle-grade girls sigh. And did I mention that Galen knits frequently? It’s a happy for me. All in all, a very satisfying fairy tale retelling.

[ETA] This is the second book in my series of Twelve Dancing Princesses retellings. The first one was The Princess Curse.

Cross-posted to and .
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I’ve been talking and emailing books with my good friend Dr. M lately, and what’s been coming up for both of us is the Twelve Dancing Princesses. We’ve both been coming across multiple novel retellings. When I tried to retell the one below as a two-night bedtime story for the Boy*, he was fascinated, but wanted a picture book version, too. I’m looking at a couple of those and will weigh in about favorites.

*The boy was first known here as Mr. Froggy Pants or Mr. FP. Once he outgrew the froggy diapers, he made up Lightening Bolt. Now he gives me a funny look if I call him that, and his personal interests are so varied and variable that I don’t know what nickname to give him here anymore.

book coverThe Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell This is a Romanian version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. 13-year-old Reveka is an herbalist’s apprentice, newly reclaimed by her father from a nunnery and brought to the castle where he works as a gardener. The princesses in this version include a number of legitimized bastard daughters as well as serial wives, rather than twelve daughters all from the same mother, a rather thoughtful touch. When Reveka learns about the curse on the princesses, she is initially scornful: “It’s a curse of shoes and naps!” But it turns out that those who try to rescue the princesses from the curse never come back the same way. Some vanish forever, some fall into a deep sleep from which nothing can awaken them, only to slip into death after months or years. As the vanished and sleeping include nobles from other countries who don’t believe in the curse, the small kingdom of Sylvania is in danger of war from multiple sides. Reveka, though, resolves to break the curse for a much more personal reason: the king has promised a dowry to any woman who breaks the curse. That would allow her to buy her way into a convent, where she could set up her own herbarium and write an herbal like her heroine, Saint Hildegard. She turns to the herbals she has access to, and a list of potential herbal sources of invisibility. Things heat up as Reveka meets a mysterious stranger in the woods, dressed in red velvet and calling himself Prince Frumos, the traditional hero of folk tales, and when her fellow apprentice Didina is discovered trying to follow the princesses. She seeks help from the mistress of the baths, who tells her that only a zmeu, a kind of humanoid maiden-marrying dragon of legend, could have caused such a curse as the princesses are under. When Reveka finally discovers a way to follow the princesses, the plot took a very sharp and unexpected plot turn, one which provided a lot of discussion fodder for the Boy and I at bedtime as to whether or not Reveka made the right choice. Reveka is a bright, stubborn and likable character. I liked learning bits of Romanian mythos, something I know very little about. Dragons in any form are a plus. It’s good fun appropriate for middle-grade students and other lovers of fairy-tale fiction, with a few reflective notes. And on a small world note, Haskell works at the library of the university from which I got my library degree.
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book cover The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein This book comes with great recommendations – blurbs by de Lint, Beagle, Le Guin, and more. It’s the 1970s in Berkley, a great time to be in college. Our narrator Will’s best friend Ben brings Will to his girlfriend’s house with him. The Feierabend family - Maddie and her sisters Livvy and Rose - live with their mother, Sylvia, in a crazy house with large and stylistically incompatible sections added on to each other. Will and Livvy fall in love, and only after things are serious between them does Will realize that the strange things that happen in and around the house are real and dangerous. A long-ago Feierabend made a bargain with the Fae – eternal prosperity for the family in exchange for seven years of the life of a daughter in each generation. The Faerie here are definitely the ambiguous, untrustworthy kind, neither all good nor all bad. When Livvy falls asleep and can’t be woken up, Will is the only one willing to do whatever it takes to get her back, even if it means confronting the Queen of Faerie. That could be the end of a satisfying story right there, but, like Into the Woods, it goes on from there. Does Livvy’s family really want to end the curse? How does one partner rescuing another change the dynamic of their relationship? How much are people willing to do for Luck, and is it worth having? I found myself looking for my parents in Will and Livvy, a young couple in college in close to the same era, which was an extra level of interest for me. But there is plenty to recommend the book without that hook, with familiar plot elements twisted together into something new, unexpected, both beautiful and frightening.

Originally posted at .


May. 4th, 2011 12:17 pm
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Two books came in on hold for me the same day. One, more or less a traditional fairy tale redone as a novel. The other, women’s fiction featuring a depressed recent divorcee who lost custody of her children. Guess which one turned out to be dark? Not the one I’ve picked initially, for sure.

book coverDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente One of my favorite books growing up was a collection of Russian fairy tales – translated from the French, it turns out, with beautiful illustrations by Zvorykin (here, Koschei the Deathless carrying off Maria Morevna, the beautiful Tsarevna). And any regular Library Mama reader will know how I love a good fairy tale turned novel. Well. “Koschei the Deathless”, more or less, set in early twentieth-century Russia, and told from the point of view of Marya Morevna, rather than the more usual Ivan. (For those not familiar with Russian fairy tales, Ivan usually plays the role of a Jack.) It’s a darkly beautiful tale, filled with sex, blood, suffering, and, oddly, birds. Zvorykin's Koschei the DeathlesWhile Koschei the Deathless is usually a flat-out villain, everything in this book is painted in murky in-between shades. Koschei is still cruel, yes, still a seducer of beautiful young women. But he is also the embodiment of Life, engaged in the eternal struggle against his brother, Death. We will say that the beginning of the last century in Russia was a particularly rough time for Life. And there is metafiction, too, as Marya Morevna knows the old stories of Koschei. Evan as she loves him and struggles to complete the tasks set to be able to marry him, she knows that in her story, one day an Ivan will come to tempt her away from Koschei. It’s more about the difficulty of the choices that we make than the simple morality of the classic tales, and that makes it a fairy tale for those able to deal with the ambiguity of life.

Originally posted at .
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book coverMagical Tales from Many Lands Retold by Margaret Mayo. Illustrated by Jane Ray I’m always on the lookout for good stories to read curled up with my son. Key features would include stories that work well read aloud, hopefully short enough to read at bedtime or before little sister becomes indistractable, and good pictures. I’ve loved Jane Ray’s work in Berlie Doherty’s Fairy Tales for years, but only recently found this earlier work. I still love Jane Ray’s style, folk-art like with lots of gold highlights. In this book, she blends her disctinctive style with elements of the art of the culture she’s representing to create work that’s both cohesive throughout the book and reflective of the culture each story is from. The stories are Arabic (“The Lemon Princess”), Japanese, Chinese, Russian (a slightly less frightening “Baba Yaga Bony-Legs” than I’m used to), African (a version of “Unanana and the Elephant,” a story I remember from one of my favorite childhood storybooks of feminist folk tales.), African-American, Native American, French and more. It’s a good mix of cultures, and while the collection doesn’t feature all women, there are enough stories of strong women that the collection never feels bogged down with outdated attitudes about women. They are well told, with lots of the repetitive language that works so well for story-telling. Although perhaps less interesting to children, I really appreciated her notes on each tale, explaining the source or sources and her deviations from that version. It’s from 1993, so currently out of print, but still available used for reasonable prices and of course free from libraries.
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book coverSt. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I am writing up this old favorite because, after several attempts at finding the perfect book, this is the one that Lightening Bolt settled on for doing his big Book Project on at school. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators of all time, and this book is a fine example of her work. These are glorious full-page pictures (watercolor and ink if I am not mistaken), with borders and marginalia around the facing page of text. It’s a long picture book for older readers (LB was disappointed not to be able to read it to his class) and the text is beautifully written. Every time that LB asks for it at bedtime on an already late night, I look for a way to abridge the text to make it a more manageable length. Every time I end up just reading the whole thing, because the words are just right, with strong metaphors and alliterations adding to the medieval feel of the book. And for kids too old for little-kid picture books and not quite ready for all chapter books, this is a book detailed and exciting enough to capture.

Crossposted to and .
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book coverEveryone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Jay Williams. Illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Here is an old-but-good one, fortuantely still available from Amazon as well as at my library. Young orphan Han is a cheerful street sweeper who tends to the gate of the city of Wu, between China and the land of the Wild Horsemen. One day, a messenger brings word that attack by the Wild Horsemen is imminent. The Mandarin calls together his advisors - the Captain of the Army, the Leader of the Merchants, the Chief of the Workmen, and the Wisest of Wise Men – to discuss what to do. They decide to pray to the Great Cloud Dragon to save them. Shortly thereafter, Han meets an ragged and fat old man at the city gate, who says he is the dragon and asks to be taken to the Mandarin. Naturally, the Mandarin and his advisors refuse to believe the man – they all know what a dragon looks like. Only Han is polite and hospitable to the old man, and his courtesy of course saves the day. This is a beautiful, slightly twisted fairy tale from Williams, whose “The Practical Princess” I remember vividly reading in Cricket as a child. This is both absorbing on the surface and provides plenty for more conversation. The beautiful pictures are recognizably the prolific and versatile Mercer Mayer’s fairy tale style, but also clearly Asian in palette and layout. Lightning Bolt loved it so much that we read it regularly for six weeks before I brought it back to the library.


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