This is the fourth post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.
by Shannon and Dean Hale, ill. by Nathan Hale
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.