Thursday, March 19, 2009

Some sorta fairy tales (and some not-so-sorta geeking out) -- with a cameo by Michelle!

The fact that Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels (a retelling of "Snow White and Rose Red") received a Printz Honor and Elizabeth C. Bunce's A Curse as Dark as Gold (a retelling of "Rumplestiltskin") won the Morris Debut award is really gratifying to me, given my big nerdy love of revisioned fairy tales. This isn't the first time a novel-length new version of a familiar fairy tale has been recognized by the ALA (in 1998 Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted was a Newbery Honor book) but the awards have been few and far between considering the vast amounts of revisioned fairy tales out there. I hope this year's awards, with two revisioned fairy tale novels recognized, will conjure up a little more respect for the genre. Here's Michelle to tell you about two of her YA faves:
Robin McKinley spins a new version of the romance of Beauty and the Beast in Beauty (ages 12 up). McKinley’s tale differs from the traditional in Honour’s “unfortunate” nickname, “Beauty”—unlike her lovely sisters Hope and Grace, Beauty is awkward and still growing into her big hands and feet. But even here McKinley doesn’t rely on clich├ęs: far from being evil or selfish, the sisters are kind and graceful in addition to being beautiful; certainly a lot for the plain, youngest daughter to be compared to. When their father’s merchant ships fail, they must move to a small village on the edge of a great forest rumored to be enchanted. Of course, in spite of all caution, the father happens upon the fearsome Beast in his enchanted castle who proposes that in exchange for the father’s life, one of the daughters must come to live with him. Beauty, the most courageous, insists on going. From here, the story expands into lush description of the beautiful castle and the dark mystery of the enchanted castle, and an extraordinary love. Beauty is an engrossing, feel-good coming-of-age read for fans of more traditional fairy tales and romance with brave, headstrong heroines in the vein of Catherine Called Birdy and Dealing with Dragons.

Mette Ivie Harrison's The Princess and the Hound (ages 14 up) offers a bit more to chew on in this enthralling reversal, told from a male’s perspective, where the “Beast” is a woman. Prince George hides his animal magic, the ability to speak to animals in their own languages, from his increasingly magic-fearing kingdom; but this magic cannot be ignored for too long, without exacting serious repercussions. Reminiscent of racism and the Salem witch hunt, animal magic inspires paranoia and prejudice in the non-magical—illustrating fantasy’s ability to address very real issues. Prince George is betrothed to aloof, stubborn Princess Beatrice, who is inseparable from her loyal hound Marit. As the political situation between their two countries deteriorates, Prince George falls in love with the true Beatrice, and must aid in the search for a magician to reverse her curse, before it’s too late. While some readers may initially resist following George’s perspective, romantics will swoon to watch his love and respect for the two females grow. This unique, captivating retelling captures the essence of the original story: magic is not something to be played with lightly, and not everything is as it seems, especially in love.
Some other YA/chapter book titles to try:
- East by Edith Pattou
- Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede
- Just Ella by Margaret Haddix
- The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley
- The Poison Apples by Lily Archer

Of course, retold fairy tales aren't just for young adult readers. I've already recommended John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, from our Older Readers section, in a staff pick, but it's so good I have to mention it again. David can't cope with his mother's death during his brother's birth, his father's subsequent interest in new romance, and the looming second World War, so he retreats into the worlds inside his books. This retreat becomes literal as David's distinction between reality and imagination blurs, a crack opens between our world and that of story, and the characters and dangers of fairy tales -- including the sinister Crooked Man -- replace the people and anxieties of his real life. Connolly includes an extensive annotated index of the fairy tales he references in the novel... but I suspect Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment was inspirational as well!

Another adult novel featuring multiple tales is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which successfully blends retold fairy tales with historical fiction and the wizard training story. Jonathan Strange is part of a new generation of wizards trained by the likes of crotchety Mr. Norell to use magic in the struggle against Napoleon. After the war, Jonathan hope to settle down in a quiet life with his new wife Arabella, but the allure of magic proves too compelling for him to resist. As Jonathan is sucked further and further into the addictive use of magic, those who practice it (both human and faerie) will threaten all that matters to him.

If a novel-length revisioned fairy tale isn't really your bowl of porridge, you can try one of Margo Lanagan's short stories (in the collections Black Juice, White Time, and Red Spikes), many of which play on fairy tale conventions, as do those by Kelly Link (in Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters). While most of these mindblowing stories are more oriented toward the grown-up reader of revisioned fairy tales, Pretty Monsters is a selection of Link's work for young adults which you can peruse in the chapter book room. Rachel loves that the stories in Pretty Monsters are each set in "a uniquely engaging world of its own" with the ability to “give readers the best kind of chills;" because of these traits, she recommends it for fans of Neil Gaiman.

Mr. G himself has some pretty sweet spins on fairy tales. (Oh, come on, you knew that was coming.) M is for Magic has among its many gems the tale "Troll Bridge," a creeptastic take on "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." Rounding out the collections is one of my all-time favorite Gaimanisms, the poem "Instructions," which tells readers exactly what to do to make it through a fairy tale alive.

Jon Sciezcka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs are the classic retold fairy tales for the picture book set. Irreverent, metafictive, and zany, these hilarious versions of familiar tales will have you clutching your stomach from too much laughing, as the Stinky Cheese Man runs off with no one giving chase (phew!) and the Big Bad Wolf explains he was only trying to borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake for Grandma.

Fairy tale purists might find our folklore and mythology section upstairs "just right"; there you'll find several different anthologies of the Grimms' "traditional" tales and Andersen's literary ones. From the uber-academic Jack Zipes to the lighter Edens Cooper and everything in between, you're sure to find one that's just right. We also have gorgeously illustrated individual tales, including a few of my best-loved:
- Susan Jeffers's The Wild Swans
- Trina Schart Hyman's Little Red Riding Hood
- Christopher Birmingham's The Snow Queen
- Lisbeth Zwerger's Hansel and Gretel
- Steven Johnson's The Ugly Duckling
- Jan Brett's Beauty and the Beast

For more fairy tale fun, try the Horn Book's recommended reading list (again: you knew that was coming, right?) or the unbelievable site Sur la Lune Fairy Tales. In addition to Sur La Lune's treasure trove of resources for the serious fairy tale fan (such as hyperlink annotations which cross-reference variations on fifty basic tales) and their gallery of illustrations, they also offer some dangerously tempting merchandise. Who needs glass slippers when you can wear Dore's Little Red Riding Hood sneaks? Although... no Trina Schart Hyman sneakers, Sur La Lune? What's up with that?

If you are a stepsister, a prince in animal form, a motherless princess, a youngest son, a cat in boots, a woman with a golden thumb, a boy with a swan wing, or just a fellow fairy tale lover, drop me a line here at the blog. What are your favorite fairy tales, traditional or retold? Let's start a book club.

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