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Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

Into the Woods

by Lyn Gardner; ill. by Mini Grey

Random House, 2007

488 pages

I’ve written before about how much I love a good fairy tale reboot–and, more recently, about how interesting antiheroes can be. Into the Woods is a book that combines both, to inspiring effect.

Here’s the story: Storm Eden lives with her mother Zella, father Reggie, and sister Aurora on the family’s country estate. With Reggie constantly off on “explorations” and Zella too lazy to lift a finger, the family has burned through its substantial fortune, and Storm and Aurora are left trying to hold things together.

Well, Aurora is, anyway. She’s the dutiful older sister, a housekeeping whiz with wicked baking skillz. Storm, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about those things. She feels hurt by their parents’ neglect, hounded by Aurora’s attempts to homeschool her, and would rather spend her time making fireworks or exploring the forbidden woods outside their estate.

Then their mother dies giving birth to a third sister, Any, and their father deserts out of grief. On her deathbed, Zella gives Storm a battered tin pipe, cautioning her against using it except at great need. Storm thinks nothing of it (Zella always was a bit of a drama queen) until the local villain, Dr. DeWilde, shows up and tries to steal it.

The girls successfully escape, but only for a time. DeWilde eventually manages to kidnap Any, and Aurora and Storm set off on a perilous quest to rescue their baby sister.

Of course, one of my favorite things about this book are the fairy tale references. Gardner is incredibly witty with her reboots and revisions: Aurora (i.e., Sleeping Beauty) has a phobia of needles and uses it to great effect at the book’s final climax, the child-eating ogress (from “Rapunzel”) is really a sassy old lady who wants the townspeople to leave her alone, and Storm’s pipe turns out to do much more than lure children to their doom.

The plot is incredible, too. Gardner manages to produce a very long book that doesn’t lose focus or intensity for a moment. And she has the guts to opt for the hard ending, one that’s processed over two climaxes and 100-plus pages. I can imagine a neater way to do it, but only at the expense of character and story integrity .

As for inspiration . . . How about not one, but five, strong heroines? Take Aurora and Any for starters. Aurora begins rather weakly but learns to master fear and is a great encourager and planner, and Any is whip-smart, incredibly loyal, and fiercely principled. Then there’s Mother Collops, the independent, sassy old woman who teaches Storm what it really means to think for herself. And there’s Netta Truelove, the girls’ behind-the-scenes guide and the only townsperson to defy DeWilde to his face.

Now for Storm. She’s the book’s pitch-perfect antiheroine, self-righteous, irresponsible, and prone to unjustified venomous outbursts. I had to grow to like her over the course of the book, and she didn’t really gel with me until the final hundred pages. But thanks to her deep love for Any and her incredible courage, I found myself rooting for her more and more as the story progressed.

There’s just something awesome about a deeply flawed character who grows (but without become perfect) and accomplishes something of tremendous importance. I think the myth of perfection is one of the greatest challenges facing women and girls today. Airbrushed images of apparently flawless women are everywhere. Add the carefully curated lives we present to each other on places like Facebook and Pinterest, not to mention all the “aspirational” books and articles telling us how we could do things better, and we have the perfect recipe for paralysis, self-loathing, and assumed incompetence.

Storm is the perfect counterpoint to the perfection myth. She’s the kind of character who helps young girls lay a solid foundation of “It’s OK not to be perfect” and “I can do it” before they encounter the perfection myth full-force. Turn your weaknesses into strengths, stir them up with healthy dashes of love and courage, and you can make things happen. That’s a much better recipe for girls to savor.

For the Eden girls’ further adventures, read Out of the Woods (2010).

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente; ill. Ana Juan

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

247 pages

Women and girls are survivors.

Throughout history, across the world, we’ve been systematically oppressed, brutalized, and marginalized–yet here we are. We still make up the majority of the world’s population. In many nations, we also make up the majority of university students, the majority of lawyers- and doctors-to-be, the majority of entrepreneurs.

We  still labor under a number of disadvantages–some official, some not–even in nations where freedom and equality are founding principles. But more often than not, we find ways to make our own success. If opportunity so much as stands outside the door, we yank on the handle and pull it inside.

There are, of course, numerous inspirational stories of real women getting the better of adversity and oppression. Ghettoized American moms who won’t accept failing schools for their children. Afghan teenagers who stand up to the Taliban. Ethiopian women who form coffee-growing collectives to feed their families.

But sometimes a story of survival is just as powerful when told through fiction, and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is that kind of story.

It has the boldness and realization of His Dark Materials, the whirling action of Lord of the Rings, and the ethereal language and imagery of The Tale of Despereaux. It’s an odd, sometimes jarring, amalgam, but it’s also compelling and very, very effective.

The novel’s heroine is 12-year-old September, a WWII-era Nebraska girl who has been left to fend mostly for herself as her father and mother both devote themselves to the war effort. Dad is an intelligence officer in combat overseas; Mom is a Rosie the Riveter. September, meanwhile, washes teacups and yearns for an adventure of her own.

When the Green Wind comes to whisk her away on the Leopard of Little Breezes, she leaves literally without a backward glance. What she doesn’t realize is that her adventure in Fairyland is not going to be the stuff of fairy tales.

Or at least, not fairy tales of the Peter Pan or Cinderella variety. Think Hans Christian Andersen instead.

As she travels through Fairyland, September encounters a variety of creatures and people. Two, a wyvern/library named A-Through-L and a marid named Saturday, become her traveling companions and allies.

They start off attempting to reclaim a witch’s spoon from The Marquess, Fairyland’s tyrannical little-girl ruler, and end up on a mission both for and against The Marquess herself.

Over the course of the book, September both witnesses and suffers brutality, deception, mutilation, and violent oppression. She also encounters deep love, loyalty, selflessness, and kindness. She pushes herself beyond limits she didn’t realize she possessed, learns lessons she didn’t know could be read, and makes sacrifices she wasn’t aware were possible.

She doesn’t escape unscathed or even whole–at least, not whole as she would have defined it pre-Fairyland. Rather, she finds herself, in her own words, “well and whole” in new fashion: she’s lost something of herself but gained in new directions.

The narrator says, quite simply, that she has begun to grow a heart.

And that, really, is what makes survival inspiring. Those who have experienced trying or traumatic circumstances and escape “well and whole” often do so because the experience has grown their hearts. Through their own suffering, they’ve learned to have compassion on others. Or they’ve gained a passion to fight back against what hurt them–not just for their own sake, but for others’ too.

This is the kind of spirit that leads victims of acid attacks to show their faces to the international press, drives cancer survivors to launch massive fundraisers, or guides the loved ones of murder and rape victims to press for more action and more laws.

These people can’t undo their own trauma, but they are determined that it won’t destroy their lives and that fewer people will suffer.

I want my daughter to read that message: that, even if she encounters the most heinous suffering, she can survive. And not just to heal, but to help.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first in a series whose length is yet to be determined. Valente released the second book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, in October 2012.

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The Gingerbread Girl

by Lisa Campbell Ernst

Dutton Children’s books, 2006

32 pages

Retellings of classic nursery stories are as plentiful (and sometimes as grating) as the sand on the seashore, but every now and then an author manages to turn out a clever, engaging version of a familiar tale.

My favorites tend to be the reboots, spinoffs, or parodies of the classics: Sczieska and Smith’s Fairly Stupid Tales, the Hales’ Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, Marshall and Sendak’s Swine Lake—and now Lisa Campbell Ernst’s The Gingerbread Girl.

This picture book isn’t just a rewrite with a girl subbed in for the rather dim-witted gingerbread boy. Instead, Ernst has crafted a very funny little sequel, where she imagines what might happen if the old couple of the original tale were to bake again.

This time, they decide to make a gingerbread girl—because, as the little old man presumes, “a sweet little girl wouldn’t run away!” What they end up with, however, is a sassy little cookie with an appetite for revenge. The moment the oven door creaks open, she’s off down the road to teach that gluttonous swimming fox a lesson.

Like her older brother, she evades a host of hungry pursuers and then hops on the fox’s back to cross the river. Unlike her brother, however, she’s only playing dumb. Once they’re too far into the river for the fox to escape, she captures him, tames him, and spends the rest of her happy days riding him around the countryside.

Aside from Ernst’s hyper-energetic illustrations, I love this book for the confidence and craftiness the Gingerbread Girl possesses. Right from the start, she settles on her purpose and doesn’t let anyone deter her. She knows she’s smart, knows she’s fabulous, and knows she can accomplish her goal if she just stays focused and brave.

Even better, she doesn’t let her predecessor’s mistakes define or deter her. And I think that’s where the inspiration is. She realizes that she’s her own person, with her own choices to make and her own narrative to write.

I want my daughter to grow up with that understanding: the knowledge that other people’s failings don’t have to limit her. Whatever choices her friends or even family members are making—have made in the past—she can stand strong, stick to her purpose, and accomplish her goals.

For the Gingerbread Girl, that means teaching the fox to treat others with kindness and respect. For a real-life little girl, it can mean mastering a skill like music or art, making the top soccer team, or leading a neighborhood service project. Or even growing up to change the world.

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This is the fifth (and final) post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess tales.

Spindle’s End

by Robin McKinley

Ace Books, 2001

354 pages

If “Rapunzel” is progressive as princess tales go, “Sleeping Beauty” is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

However embellished, the story usually goes something like this: Princess is cursed.  Princess is raised icognito for her protection.  Princess is lured to her doom.  Princess falls into enchanted sleep.  Princess is woken and rescued by brave, handsome prince.

Notice how almost all the sentences you just read are in passive voice?  Because that’s pretty much what “Sleeping Beauty” is, a tale of passivity.

Unless Robin McKinley is telling the story.  Then it’s a tale of “girls who do things,” as she likes to say.

It’s also a tale of magic, of the friendship and familial bonds between women, and of the bravery of girls who rise to the occasion in spectacular ways.

Spindle’s End centers around Rosie, princess and heir to the throne in a country where magic is “so thick and tenacious that it settle[s] over the land like chalk-dust.”

Cursed on her name-day by the evil fairy Pernicia, Rosie spends her childhood in the foster care of Aunt and Katriona, two professional fairies who live in a remote rural province.

The two women try to make Rosie “as safe as ordinariness can make her,” but Rosie is far from ordinary.

Even as an infant, she’s alert, active, and strong-willed.  She grows to exhibit the gift of beast-speech, prefers short hair and trousers to long ringlets and dresses, and apprentices to the local blacksmith as a horse-leech.

Then, just months before her twenty-first birthday, an otherworldly stranger appears (on her doorstep, literally) and reveals her true identity.  And she and the people who love her must decide how best to face her curse and defeat Pernicia for good.

It’s a brilliant elaboration of the old tale, with McKinley expanding on and reinterpreting all the key elements in stunningly creative ways.

Take Pernicia and her curse, for example.  Most tellings of “Sleeping Beauty” reduce the princess’s christening to something out of a teen revenge flick, with the social outcast exploding on the scene to throw her tantrum and make everyone sorry they didn’t invite her to the ball.

McKinley’s Pernicia, however, is a sorceress whose magic is at once insidious and overwhelming in its craft and potency.  The curse is her attempt at resurrecting a centuries-old war against the women of the royal family–and the breaking of it requires far more than a simple kiss from a prince (though that figures, too, in delightfully altered form).

And then there are Aunt and Katriona, whose devotion to one another and to Rosie is a matchless (not to mention gritty, poignant, and hilarious) depiction of the love between mothers and their children, biological and otherwise.

While the fairy foster-mothers function primarily as plot devices in most versions of the tale, Aunt and Katriona are fully realized women.  The central characters for half the book, they wield a blend of grace, intelligence, wisdom, and magic that’s so strong they can barely contain it.

I could go on for pages, but I’d end up spoiling the book’s most delicious treats and surprises.  Suffice to say that there’s not a single weak woman in the book–every one has her strengths, even if some are more hidden than others.

Nor do they come across as clumsily feminized versions of male archetypes, as sometimes happens when less-gifted authors try to inject some “girl power” into old, misogynist tales.  These are women, undeniably and gloriously so.

Even more inspiring, they help each other understand what womanhood means, both in general terms and in the context of their culture and their individual lives.

When one of them struggles to comprehend some aspect of her life or identity, the others deliberately form a wide circle around her.  They walk the delicate line between offering support and wisdom and leaving space for her to make her own discoveries.

The result: an environment and relationships that foster each person’s (not just each woman’s) growth to full potential.  Because, as you may have heard it said, when women succeed, everyone succeeds.

Strong women, strong purposes, strong bonds, strong society.  You can’t get much more inspiring than that.

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This is the fourth post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.

Rapunzel’s Revenge

by Shannon and Dean Hale, ill. by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, 2008

144 pages

For a princess story, the tale of Rapunzel is fairly subversive.

To begin with, she’s not actually a princess, or even of noble birth.  She actively enables the prince’s visits to her tower, and she plots her own escape.  She makes her own way in the wilderness.  And she rescues the prince, who is magically healed of blindness by her tears.

Even in its classic form, then, “Rapunzel” is a decent alternative to passive-princess tales like “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.”

For older girls, however, there is an even better option: the sassy graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by Nathan Hale (not related to the authors).

More than a retelling, Rapunzel’s Revenge is a complete reboot of the fairy tale.  Set in the nineteenth-century American West, the Hales’ version skillfully treads the territory between parody and inspired reimagination.

This Rapunzel lives in a walled compound with her mother Gothel, a grim woman who uses powerful “growth magic” to control the area’s food production and, by extension, its wealth and people.

But Rapunzel is tired of being cooped up like a lapdog, and she’s not so sure she wants to be Gothel’s heir.  When she discovers that Gothel is actually her kidnapper and captor, not her mother, she openly rebels–and Gothel locks her in an enchanted tree-tower for punishment.

Rapunzel spends 4 years there, her thick red hair growing all the time, until she finally engineers her own escape.  Accompanied by a guy named Jack, whom she rescues from some thugs, Rapunzel gradually makes her way back to Mother Gothel’s villa.  Her goal (the “revenge” of the title) is to liberate the land and people from Gothel’s clutches and rescue her own true mother from the witch’s dungeons.

The entire tale, from beginning to end, is nothing short of brilliant.  Equal parts campy Western, quest fantasy, and pioneer/adventure tale, it’s overlayed with just the right amount of sincerity and poignancy.

If you’re a fan of the film Gladiator, you’ll know what I mean.  You cheer for Rapunzel not just because you love watching her kick the bad guys’ butts (which she does quite handily, thank you very much); you also want this lonely, wandering girl to find the family she so desperately seeks.

And that’s what makes this tale captivating: Rapunzel feels real.  Hard to imagine, for a girl who twirls torches at the ends of her braids and rides lake serpents like they’re rodeo bulls.  But her creators, through both artwork and story, manage to color her with oh-so-human longings and fears.

As an added bonus, they do it all without the gore, blue language, and sexual objectification so pervasive in the genre.  Admittedly, there are moments where the story seems a little too squeaky-clean, but they’re few and far between.

The overall package is beautifully executed, a brain-tickling blend of clever humor, sly allusions, authentic character development, and high-octane adventure.

It’s the perfect book for girls in difficult circumstances who feel powerless to effect change–and for any girl who needs a little encouragement to be unapologetically, radically herself.

The Hale trio have also published Calamity Jack, a follow-up to Rapunzel’s Revenge.  As you might guess, this comic shifts the focus to Rapunzel’s friend Jack, although our heroine is still a prominent character.  And, yes, there is a giant involved.

Shannon Hale is also the author of several alternative fairy tales in novel form, the most famous of which is her Newbery Honor-winning Princess Academy.

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This is the third post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.

The Ordinary Princess

by M. M. Kaye

Viking, 2002

112 pages

Developing this series, I looked high and low for a good tween-oriented princess tale.  There was Ella Enchanted, of course, but it seemed like such an obvious choice.

I wanted to find something off the beaten path, and one of my fabulous librarian friends obligingly pointed me to The Ordinary Princess.

It’s an overused phrase, but this really is a gem of a book.

It reads much like Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s tales, or The Hobbit: comfortably chatty, seasoned with equal parts sly humor and old-fashioned propriety.

In short, it’s utterly, unmistakably English–the perfect tone for a cheeky rewrite of the typical princess tale.

Here’s the story: Her Serene and Royal Highness the Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne is the seventh daughter of the King and Queen of Phantasmorania.

At her christening, a cranky old fairy “gifts” her with Ordinariness, and the princess grows up looking, thinking, and acting like a normal girl.

Fast-forward several years, and the King and Queen are seeking a husband for Princess Amy.  When they decide to take the drastic step of locking Amy in a tower and hiring a dragon to guard her–the King says it will make her irresistible to princes–the princess decides that she’s had enough.

She runs away to a neighboring kingdom, where she finds work as a palace kitchen maid and strikes up a friendship with a “man-of-all-work” named Peregrine.

When a couple of chance meetings reveal their true identities (Peregrine is actually a young king who doesn’t want to marry a typical princess), the two realize they were made for each other.

The story ends with them marrying and sneaking off to a honeymoon in an ordinary forest cottage.

There’s so much inspiration here, particularly for tween girls just beginning to navigate the world of body-consciousness and identity issues.

First, there’s the princess’s refusal to be passed from hand to hand or locked away like so much baggage.

Rather than allow others to determine her destiny–or, indeed, her worth–she courageously strikes out for a path that’s true to who she is.

Then there’s her adaptability.  She moves easily and competently between palace, forest, and kitchen.  She’s unafraid of hard work, and her joy isn’t dependent on wealth and pomp.

But what I love most is the fact that she’s at peace with herself.

She sees her ordinariness as a blessing, not a cross to bear (which, of course, is what the old fairy intended).  She doesn’t pine for ballrooms, jewels, and gowns–she’s happy to run around in the forest.

Nor does she spend her time as kitchen maid wishing she had the looks and accomplishments to fit into palace society.

Is she perfectly confident?  Not by a long shot.  She has her insecurities, her moments of wistfulness.  But those just make her seem real and relateable.

Overall, she is quite content to be The Ordinary Princess, and she refuses to do life on any terms but her own.

That’s inspiring to me.  How about you?

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This is the second post in my Precocious Princesses series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.

The Apple-Pip Princess

by Jane Ray

Candlewick Press, 2007

32 pages

Inspiration is a funny thing.

It’s hard to come by, but highly contagious.  It has an inexorable power but works according to the choices of those who use it.

And just one spark of it can transform an ordinary person into a leader who changes lives, whole societies, even the world.

That’s the lesson learned by Princess Serenity in Jane Ray’s The Apple-Pip Princess.

Serenity is a princess in a nameless, blighted kingdom.  Once green and prosperous, her world has descended into drought and crippling poverty since her mother’s death.

Now her father is approaching the end of his life, and he gives Serenity and her two older sisters a test to determine which of them will succeed him as ruler: each girl gets a week to “make her mark,” to do something that makes him proud.

The older sisters, superficial and vain, build two tall towers to impress the king.  They use materials stripped from their impoverished subjects’ homes and imprison anyone who objects.

Serenity, meanwhile, retreats to a favorite place and pores over her inheritance from her mother: a simple wooden box containing natural treasures collected by the queen in childhood.

And, slowly, inspiration comes.  As Ray puts it, “the tiny seed of an amazing idea began to form in her mind.”

Using the queen’s treasures and the seeds from her breakfast fruit, Serenity plants and nourishes the first seedling trees her homeland has seen in years.

After five days of this work, she notices a village boy watching her.  She invites him to join her, and soon villagers everywhere are helping to plant groves and groves of trees.

The end result is the restoration of nature, prosperity, and fellowship throughout the kingdom–and, of course, the king’s choice of Serenity as his heir.

It’s a welcome change from the passive princess who waits for someone else to come along and rescue her.  Serenity actively reaches out for inspiration and does the back-breaking work of bringing it to fruition.

In the process, she saves not just herself but the entire kingdom.

There is so much here to inspire: Serenity’s simple faith in her mother’s legacy, her compassionate inclusion of the suffering villagers, and the multiplication of the princess’s heartfelt efforts.

Even better, Ray has managed to write a fable that is poetic but never trite.  The voice is familiar, warm, reverent.  The book teaches valuable lessons but never preaches.

And the storyline is intriguing–the first time I read the book, I kept wondering what would happen next.

What was Serenity going to do with the items in the box?  Would her plan actually work?  Would the king appreciate the outcome?

I love, too, that Ray (who is English) chose not to create yet another Renaissance-style, Anglo-Saxon princess.

Although the story’s setting is undefined, Ray’s paintings are reminiscent of Indian story-tapestries blended with Moroccan elements.

Every character is brown-skinned and dark-eyed; some wear yarmulke-style caps, others sport dreadlocks or close white curls.

And Ray makes a point that Serenity, although somewhat pretty, is “little and shy and quite ordinary.”

Inspiration, in other words, is no respecter of persons.

Whether you’re light-skinned or dark, young or old, dirt-poor or a privileged princess, you can find the spark that turns you into a leader–and make the choices that turn your leadership into something that inspires others.

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