Good morning, book people! After yesterday’s mini freakout and fiction-related writerly indecision, I’m feeling much calmer (in great part due to the excellent comment-love). For those who asked, yesterday’s interview went well, I think. It was definitely kind of fun, and I spent a lot of time in my writer’s garb, chatting about voice (one of my favorite topics).
And I have some most-excellent news this morning!
Back home, in the great (though often cold) state of Victoria, the library system has launched a YA type Goodreads, Inside A Dog. The name comes from a Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” I’ll have more on Inside A Dog next week, but definitely head on over now–they have guest posts by some great YA authors coming up! (Brian Falkner, Gayle Forman…)
Field Trip Friday over at YA Highway has some excellent links around the writing webs this week, including this LA Times piece on Little Red Riding Hood getting a makeover. I love the cover, but it’s so Cinderella to me that I’m not sure I love it for Riding Hood. What do you think?
It’s been a big week for e-publishing in the blogosphere. Eric at Pimp My Novel has a nice, grounding list of 5 Things You Should Know About the eRevolution. Nathan Bransford has a few insights into pricing and ebooks vs. hardcovers (a nice follow up to Mike Shatzkin’s post on pricing models earlier this week). He also some really useful–again grounding–on Amanda Hocking and the 99c Kindle millionaires. (If you have to choose just one of these posts to read, go with the last on Hocking.)
An internet oldie but a goodie – my critique partner and friend, Livia, has a post on writing realistic male characters, and the jerkyness that is Guyhood. Love, love, love this!
Debbie Ridpath Ohi over at MiG writers has a follow up to her first post on writers and voice this week. The new post draws from Stephen Pressfield, and asks a couple of questions all writers should be thinking about. Both are well worth reading, and very quick!Read More
If the term “literary” frightens you, you’re not alone. It’s something of a buzz word, and a confusing one at that. Literary YA, though, is a little different to literary adult fiction–generally speaking, it’s more accessible, and a great place to get started if you’re curious about lit fic, especially if you love language. These novels run the gamut from fantasy through contemporary, some light, some dark, some in between, each with a strong focus on character. Some are closer to middle grade, but all will appeal YA lovers.
1. BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, Shannon Hale
When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years for Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment. As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. But the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, and the other decidedly less so—brings both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.
With Shannon Hale’s lyrical language, this forgotten but classic fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm is reimagined and reset on the central Asian steppes; it is a completely unique retelling filled with adventure and romance, drama and disguise.
2. STARDUST, Neil Gaiman
Tristran Thorn falls in love with the prettiest girl in town and makes her a foolish promise: he says that he’ll go find the falling star they both watched streak across the night sky. She says she’ll marry him if he finds it, so he sets off, leaving his home of Wall, and heads out into the perilous land of faerie, where not everything is what it appears. Gaiman is known for his fanciful wit, sterling prose and wildly imaginative plots, and Stardust is no exception.
3. THIS IS WHAT I DID, Ann Dee Ellis*
Eighth-grader Logan is struggling to deal with a violent situation he witnessed a year ago between his best friend, Zyler, and Zyler’s abusive father but insists to everyone around him that he is fine. Just fine. Reluctant readers will be drawn into this story, which also includes bullying classmates and a dismal winter camping trip. Frequent line breaks, screenplay-style dialogue, and e-mails and notes illustrated with black icons break up the scenes. Logan gets to play one of the Lost Boys in the school play, and finds that the theater crowd offers a respite from bullies. A friendship with a girl named Laurel (a palindrome collector who is is thinking of changing her name to Laral), and a relationship with a counselor help Logan to begin the healing process and convince him to reconnect with Zyler. This psychological drama effectively explores our failure to protect youth from abuse inflicted by peers or adults. Caution: there’s a slang term for scrotum on page 1. — Dobrez, Cindy for Booklist
4. SPEAK, Laurie Halse Anderson
Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country.
5. THE UNDERNEATH, Kathi Appelt
Appelt’s impressive novel (her first) entails animals in crisis—a topic of enduring popularity. But the author, whose path from picture books to fantasy is discussed in the Story behind the Story, breathes new life into the sentient-animals premise, introducing strong currents of magic realism into a tale as rich and complex as “the gumbo-like waters of the bayous.” Chained and starved by cruel trapper Gar Face, lonely hound Ranger finds companions in a stray cat and her two kittens. When Mother Cat falls victim to Gar Face’s abuse, the surviving animals, especially sensitive kitten Puck, struggle to keep their makeshift family together. The animals’ caring, generous bonds juxtapose with the smothering love of an ancient shape-shifter in a moving parallel story. Joining Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as a rare example of youth fantasy with strong American underpinnings, Appelt’s novel folds in specific traditions of the Caddo peoples of east Texas, and casts the bayous as a kind of enchanted forest laden with spirits and benign, organic presences. Some readers may struggle with Appelt’s repeated phrases and poetic fragments, and wish the connections and conflicts in the story came to a faster boil. But most children will be pulled forward by the vulnerable pets’ survival adventure and by Small’s occasional, down-to-earth drawings, created with fluid lines that are a perfect match for the book’s saturated setting and Appelt’s ebbing, flowing lyricism. –Jennifer Mattson for Booklist
6. THE STAR OF KAZAN, Eva Ibbotson
Abandoned as a baby, Annika is found and adopted by Ellie and Sigrid, cook and housemaid for three professors. Growing up in early-20th-century Vienna, she learns to cook and clean and is perfectly happy until a beautiful aristocrat appears and claims to be her mother, sweeping her off to a new life in a crumbling castle in northern Germany. Annika is determined to make the best of things, and it takes a while for her to realize that her new “family” has many secrets, most of them nasty. With the help of Ellie, Sigrid, the professors, and friends old and new, Annika escapes from a ghastly fate and learns to face the truth about her relatives. Winding like a braid through this story is a mystery involving a chest of worn costumes and junk jewelry left to Annika by an old woman she has befriended. This is a rich saga in the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett, full of stalwart friends, sly villains, a brave heroine, and good triumphing over evil. Annika’s determination to do the right thing is both laudable and utterly frustrating, especially when readers realize that her loyalty is misplaced. Almost every character is distinct, but the ones that stand out are the “regular folk,” individuals whose sense of decency propels them into amazing acts of courage. Vienna itself is colorfully portrayed, brimming with pastries, coffee, and dancing Lipizzaner horses. An intensely satisfying read.–Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library for School Library Journal
7. A THOUSAND NEVER EVERS, Shana Burg
Set in rural Mississippi during the civil rights movement, this gripping first novel offers an up-close look at the racism and violence endured in an African-American community. By the time Addie Ann Pickett, the narrator, enters junior high, she is well aware of the racial divisions in her county. She has been warned not to stay on the white side of town after the sun has set and not to “look at white folks too close.” But her older brother and the local minister have different ideas and argue that “there comes a time when a man’s dignity’s worth more than his life.” Caught between her mother’s rule to stay away from trouble and the call to take action, Addie must make decisions, especially when the lives of two family members are at stake. References to significant historical events (Medgar Evers’s assassination, the March on Washington) add authenticity and depth, while Addie’s frank, expertly modulated voice delivers an emotional wallop. –PW
8. A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, Megan Whalen Turner
Following The Thief, a 1997 Newbery Honor Book, and The King of Attolia, a 2007 Best Book for Young Adults, Turner continues her exquisite series with another rich story that examines peace, power, leadership, and loyalty. After initial, tense prison scenes focused on Eugenides, the king of Attolia, the novel’s viewpoint switches from third to first person, and Sophos, the reluctant king of Sounis who prefers poetry to politics, relates the adventures that precipitated his rise to questionable power. Tutors have drilled Sophos in imaginary attacks, but after he loses his family in a real invasion, he is bereft and goes into hiding as a slave on a nobleman’s estate in order to avoid his sovereign responsibilities. Even though Eugenides’ fans will miss his presence, he continues to pull strings from the sidelines as he joins leaders in high-priced alliances and prepares for an invasion. Turner’s plotting remains deft, and the subtlety with which she balances her characters’ inner and outer worlds will delight both series newcomers and fans, who will be waiting to grab this stand-out, stand-alone adventure, filled with all the expected intrigue and political machinations, from the shelves.–Cindy Dobrez for Booklist
9. NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL, Justina Chen Headley
Sixteen-year-old Terra seems to be a typical high-achieving high-school student. Under her heavy makeup, though, she hides a port-wine colored birthmark on her cheek that makes her feel like an outsider. During yet another attempt to remove the birthmark, Terra runs into Jacob, a gorgeous Goth with a cleft-palette scar. That encounter initiates a transformation in both Terra and her subservient mother. Headley has written an exquisite book that explores the difference between physical and true beauty as Terra and her mother travel from Washington state to China, and from the home of a shame-faced, cruel cartographer into the presence of an adventurous, strong woman and her insightful teenage son. Headley uses map metaphors throughout, even in the activity, geocaching, which helps bond Terra and Jacob in both Washington and China. She also uses Terra’s artistic medium, collage, as a literary device to create layer upon layer of experiences and insights into a artfully written journey of self-discovery, self-actualization, and love. With every carefully chosen word, well-crafted sentence, and fully developed character, Headley maps out a wholly satisfying reading experience that takes readers from terra nullis to terra firma. –Frances Bradburn for Booklist
10. A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, (series), Ursula K. LeGuin
Often compared to Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Lewis’s Narnia, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is a stunning fantasy world that grabs quickly at our hearts, pulling us deeply into its imaginary realms. Four books (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu) tell the whole Earthsea cycle–a tale about a reckless, awkward boy named Sparrowhawk who becomes a wizard’s apprentice after the wizard reveals Sparrowhawk’s true name. The boy comes to realize that his fate may be far more important than he ever dreamed possible. Le Guin challenges her readers to think about the power of language, how in the act of naming the world around us we actually create that world. Teens, especially, will be inspired by the way Le Guin allows her characters to evolve and grow into their own powers.
In this first book, A Wizard of Earthsea readers will witness Sparrowhawk’s moving rite of passage–when he discovers his true name and becomes a young man.–Amazon
11. WHEN YOU REACH ME, Rebecca Stead
Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.??By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:
I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.
The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.
12. STARGIRL, Jerry Spinelli
“She was homeschooling gone amok.” “She was an alien.” “Her parents were circus acrobats.” These are only a few of the theories concocted to explain Stargirl Caraway, a new 10th grader at Arizona’s Mica Area High School who wears pioneer dresses and kimonos to school, strums a ukulele in the cafeteria, laughs when there are no jokes, and dances when there is no music. The whole school, not exactly a “hotbed of nonconformity,” is stunned by her, including our 16-year-old narrator Leo Borlock: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl.”
In time, incredulity gives way to out-and-out adoration as the student body finds itself helpless to resist Stargirl’s wide-eyed charm, pure-spirited friendliness, and penchant for celebrating the achievements of others. In the ultimate high school symbol of acceptance, she is even recruited as a cheerleader. Popularity, of course, is a fragile and fleeting state, and bit by bit, Mica sours on their new idol. Why is Stargirl showing up at the funerals of strangers? Worse, why does she cheer for the opposing basketball teams? The growing hostility comes to a head when she is verbally flogged by resentful students on Leo’s televised Hot Seat show in an episode that is too terrible to air. While the playful, chin-held-high Stargirl seems impervious to the shunning that ensues, Leo, who is in the throes of first love (and therefore scornfully deemed “Starboy”), is not made of such strong stuff: “I became angry. I resented having to choose. I refused to choose. I imagined my life without her and without them, and I didn’t like it either way.”
13. THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX, Mary E. Pearson
Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox awakens after more than a year in a coma to find herself in a life—and a body—that she doesn’t quite recognize. Her parents tell her that she’s been in an accident, but much of her past identity and current situation remain a mystery to her: Why has her family abruptly moved from Boston to California, leaving all of her personal belongings behind? Why does her grandmother react to her with such antipathy? Why have her parents instructed her to make sure not to tell anyone about the circumstances of their move? And why can Jenna recite whole passages of Thoreau’s Walden, but remember next to nothing of her own past? As she watches family videos of her childhood, strange memories begin to surface, and she slowly realizes that a terrible secret is being kept from her. Pearson has constructed a gripping, believable vision of a future dystopia. She explores issues surrounding scientific ethics, the power of science, and the nature of the soul with grace, poetry, and an apt sense of drama and suspense. Some of the supporting characters are a bit underdeveloped, but Jenna herself is complex, interesting, and very real. This is a beautiful blend of science fiction, medical thriller, and teen-relationship novel that melds into a seamless whole that will please fans of all three genres.—Meredith Robbins for School Library Journal
14. THE BOOK THIEF, Marcus Zusak
Zusak has created a work that deserves the attention of sophisticated teen and adult readers. Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first book–although she has not yet learned how to read–and her foster father uses it, The Gravediggers Handbook, to lull her to sleep when shes roused by regular nightmares about her younger brothers death. Across the ensuing years of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: the boy Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, the mayors reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents. Zusak not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax, causing readers to deliberate over phrases and lines, even as the action impels them forward. Death is not a sentimental storyteller, but he does attend to an array of satisfying details, giving Liesels story all the nuances of chance, folly, and fulfilled expectation that it deserves. An extraordinary narrative.–Francisca Goldsmith for School Library Journal
15. THE GIVER, Lois Lowry
In the “ideal” world into which Jonas was born, everybody has sensibly agreed that well-matched married couples will raise exactly two offspring, one boy and one girl. These children’s adolescent sexual impulses will be stifled with specially prescribed drugs; at age 12 they will receive an appropriate career assignment, sensibly chosen by the community’s Elders. This is a world in which the old live in group homes and are “released”–to great celebration–at the proper time; the few infants who do not develop according to schedule are also “released,” but with no fanfare. Lowry’s development of this civilization is so deft that her readers, like the community’s citizens, will be easily seduced by the chimera of this ordered, pain-free society. Until the time that Jonah begins training for his job assignment–the rigorous and prestigious position of Receiver of Memory–he, too, is a complacent model citizen. But as his near-mystical training progresses, and he is weighed down and enriched with society’s collective memories of a world as stimulating as it was flawed, Jonas grows increasingly aware of the hypocrisy that rules his world. With a storyline that hints at Christian allegory and an eerie futuristic setting, this intriguing novel calls to mind John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Lowry is once again in top form–raising many questions while answering few, and unwinding a tale fit for the most adventurous readers.–PW
16. JELLICOE ROAD, Melina Marchetta
Taylor Markham isn’t just one of the new student leaders of her boarding school, she’s also the heir to the Underground Community, one of three battling school factions in her small Australian community (the others being the Cadets and the Townies). For a generation, these three camps have fought “the territory wars,” a deadly serious negotiation of land and property rife with surprise attacks, diplomatic immunities, and physical violence. Only this year, it’s complicated: Taylor might just have a thing for Cadet leader Jonah, and Jonah might just be the key to unlocking the secret identity of Taylor’s mother, who abandoned her when she was 11. In fact, nearly every relationship in Taylor’s life has unexpected ties to her past, and the continual series of revelations is both the book’s strength and weakness; the melodrama can be trying, but when Marchetta isn’t forcing epiphanies, she has a knack for nuanced characterizations and punchy dialogue. The complexity of the backstory will be offputting to younger readers, but those who stick it out will find rewards in the heartbreaking twists of Marchetta’s saga. –Daniel Kraus for Booklist
17. CRANK, Ellen Hopkins
Seventeen-year-old Kristina Snow is introduced to crank on a trip to visit her wayward father. Caught up in a fast-paced, frightening, and unfamiliar world, she morphs into “Bree” after she “shakes hands with the monster.” Her fearless, risk-taking alter ego grows stronger, “convincing me to be someone I never dreamed I’d want to be.” When Kristina goes home, things don’t return to normal. Although she tries to reconnect with her mother and her former life as a good student, her drug use soon takes over, leaving her “starving for speed” and for boys who will soon leave her scarred and pregnant. Hopkins writes in free-verse poems that paint painfully sharp images of Kristina/Bree and those around her, detailing how powerful the “monster” can be. The poems are masterpieces of word, shape, and pacing, compelling readers on to the next chapter in Kristina’s spiraling world. This is a topical page-turner and a stunning portrayal of a teen’s loss of direction and realistically uncertain future.–Sharon Korbeck for School Library Journal
18. PUSH, (Precious), Sapphire *
An electrifying first novel that shocks by its language, its circumstances, and its brutal honesty, Push recounts a young black street-girl’s horrendous and redemptive journey through a Harlem inferno. For Precious Jones, 16 and pregnant with her father’s child, miraculous hope appears and the world begins to open up for her when a courageous, determined teacher bullies, cajoles, and inspires her to learn to read, to define her own feelings and set them down in a diary.
Fairy tale literature, once mostly stock standard retellings of The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, is moving on. Old fairy tales are still being retold (Book of a Thousand Days), but new ones are constantly being written, too (Once Upon a Marigold). Of course, that leaves dedicated fairy tale readers like me in a bit of bind–there’s so much to read that sometimes the best books get lost in the bookshelf shuffle. Here’s a list of some of the great fairy tale lit you may have missed. Some titles listed are younger than a YA audience, but fun reads all the same. (Have something to add to the list? Email me, or leave a note in the comments!)
1. BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, Shannon Hale
Hale (River Secrets) delivers another winning fantasy, this time inventively fleshing out the obscure Grimm tale, Maid Maleen, through the expressive and earthy voice of Dashti, maid to Lady Saren. A plucky and resourceful orphan, Dashti comes from a nomad tribe in a place resembling the Asian Steppes, and is brought to the Lady’s house in the midst of a crisis. Lady Saren, having refused to marry the powerful but loathsome Lord her father has chosen, faces seven years’ imprisonment in an unlit tower. Initially, Dashti believes her worth is tied to her ability to care for her “tower-addled” lady until she can join Khan Tegus, to whom she is secretly betrothed. When the gentle Tegus comes to the tower, Dashti must step in for her traumatized lady, speaking to him as Saren through the one tiny metal door. Hale exploits the diary form to convey Dashti’s perspective; despite her self-effacing declaration that “?I draw this from memory so it won’t be right,” the entries reflect her genuinely spirited inner life. The tension between her unstinting loyalty and patience and burgeoning realization of her own strength and feelings for Tegus feels especially authentic. Readers will be riveted as Dashti and Saren escape and flee to the Khan’s realm where, through a series of deceptions, contrivances and a riotously triumphant climax, the tale spins out to a thoroughly satisfying ending.–PW
2. BEAUTY: A RETELLING OF THE STORY OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Robin McKinley
Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage. When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?” Robin McKinley’s beloved telling illuminates the unusual love story of a most unlikely couple: Beauty and the Beast.–B&N
3. FAIREST, Gail Carson Levine
Levine’s enchanting, intelligent fairy tale, set in a kingdom devoted to singing, lends itself well to full-cast production; this one features 32 voices. Composer Todd Hobin has set Levine’s lyrics to music; Naughton does a terrific job as maid Aza, the narrator, a demanding role that requires near-operatic talents. Homely Aza, abandoned at birth, not only sings like a lark, she can throw her voice and mimic others, a skill she calls illusing. In a chance meeting, the treacherous new queen, whose abrasive voice has a Valley Girlesque quality, discovers Aza’s talent and blackmails the girl into secretly providing her voice for all of the queen’s public singing. Additional background music augments the many perilous predicaments Aza finds herself in, as well as providing a backdrop to the fairy-tale romance that develops between her and Prince Ijori. –PW
4. THE STINKY CHEESEMAN, AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES, Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith
Scieszka and Smith, the daring duo responsible for revealing The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Viking, 1989), return here with nine new exposes, all narrated by the ubiquitous Jack (of Beanstalk fame). Unlike the detailed retelling of the pigs’ tale, most of these stories are shortened, one-joke versions that often trade their traditional morals for hilarity. “The Stinky Cheese Man” is an odoriferous cousin to the gingerbread boy; when he runs away, nobody wants to run after him. “The Other Frog Prince” wheedles a kiss only to reveal that he is just a tricky frog (as the princess wipes the frog slime off her lips); the Little Red Hen wanders frantically in and out of the book squawking about her wheat, her bread, her story, until she is finally (and permanently) squelched by Jack’s giant. The broad satire extends even to book design, with a blurb that proclaims “NEW! IMPROVED! FUNNY! GOOD! BUY! NOW!” and a skewed table of contents crashing down on Chicken Licken and company several pages after they proclaim that the sky is falling. The illustrations are similar in style and mood to those in the earlier book, with the addition of more abstraction plus collage in some areas. The typeface, text size, and placement varies to become a vital part of the illustrations for some of the tales. Clearly, it is necessary to be familiar with the original folktales to understand the humor of these versions. Those in the know will laugh out loud. –Susan L. Rogers, Chestnut Hill Academy, PA for School Library Journal
5. TITHE, Holly Black
Kaye is 16 when she finally learns why she’s such a strange young woman: she’s a changeling pixie under a spell. A move home to the New Jersey shore brings her back in touch with her childhood friends, the solitary fey, who want to end their servitude to the higher-born faeries by foiling the sacrifice of human blood known as the Tithe. Kaye offers to masquerade as a human for the Tithe and is swept into a complicated net of politics and treason between two rival courts of faeries. Grim scenes from Kaye’s life in the human world pile up at the beginning of the story in what initially seems a gratuitous manner (her mother is almost stabbed by her current boyfriend, Kaye steals for thrills, a new acquaintance tries to rape her), but the details all have explanations later on in the equally grim world of the faeries. The plot moves quickly, and the secondary characters are appealing, if not always entirely believable. Occasional awkward changes in point of view won’t discourage readers who enjoy dark, edgy fantasy. However, the excessive use of obscenities adds little to character development. Thegreatest strength of the story lies in the settings, particularly the descriptions of the debased Unseelie Court.-Beth Wright, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington, VT for School Library Journal
6. ONCE UPON A MARIGOLD, Jean Ferris
In a gratifying fantasy that contains elements of classic fairy tales, Ferris (Love Among the Walnuts) breathes new life into archetypal characters by adding unexpected and often humorous dimensions to their personalities. The protagonist, Christian, has been raised in the forest by a troll named Edric. As he nears manhood, Christian decides it is time to see the world-or at least the section across the river, where the lovely Princess Marigold resides. Having spent many hours gazing at Marigold through a telescope and corresponding with her by “p-mail” (letters sent by carrier pigeon), he has already felt the sting of Cupid’s arrow by the time he lands a job in court. Marigold readily returns his affections, but unfortunately, she is about to become betrothed to Sir Magnus. Meanwhile, Marigold’s evil mother, Queen Olympia, is plotting to murder both Marigold and her kindly, doting father, King Swithbert. Readers swept into the lighthearted spirit of this novel will likely not be bothered by the predictability of outcomes. As in fairy tales of old, jabs are made at social values and norms, and concepts of nobility and ignobility are painted in very broad strokes. Nonetheless, heroes and heroines emerge as convincing, well-rounded characters embodying flaws as well as virtues. Their foibles-Edric’s tendency to mix up adages, Christian’s stubborn streak and Marigold’s penchant for “awful” jokes-make the good guys all the more endearing.–PW
7. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Dianna Wynne Jones
Sophie Hatter reads a great deal and soon realizes that as the eldest of three daughters she is doomed to an uninteresting future. She resigns herself to making a living as a hatter and helping her younger sisters prepare to make their fortunes. But adventure seeks her out in the shop where she sits alone, dreaming over her hats. The wicked Witch of the Waste, angered by “competition” in the area, turns her into a old woman, so she seeks refuge inside the strange moving castle of the wizard Howl. Howl, advertised by his apprentice as an eater of souls, lives a mad, frantic life trying to escape the curse the witch has placed on him, find the perfect girl of his dreams and end the contract he and his fire demon have entered. Sophie, against her best instincts and at first unaware of her own powers, falls in love. So goes this intricate, humorous and puzzling tale of fantasy and adventure which should both challenge and involve readers. Jones has created an engaging set of characters and found a new use for many of the appurtenances of fairy talesseven league boots and invisible cloaks, among others. At times, the action becomes so complex that readers may have to go back to see what actually happened, and at the end so many loose ends have to be tied up at once that it’s dizzying. Yet Jones’ inventiveness never fails, and her conclusion is infinitely satisfying. Sara Miller, White Plains Public Library, N.Y. for School Library Journal
Because fairy tales are scary, not PC, and outdated.
Too Frightening for Children
It’s not surprising that some parents find fairy tales frightening. Children are abandoned in forests (Hansel and Gretel), sent away to be killed (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), kidnapped and/or sold (Rapunzel), even married early to creepy old widowers (Bluebeard). Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl dies on the street, forgotten and unloved, clinging to a memory of her dead grandmother and her dream of a real home.
Who’s avoiding fairy tales:
- 3000 parents polled
- Almost 20% won’t read Hansel & Gretel
- 20% don’t like reading The Gingerbread Man
- 33% refuse to read Little Red Riding Hood
- 66% say fairy tales have stronger morality messages than modern kidlit
- 75% try to avoid scary stories before bedtime
- 50% will not consider reading a fairy tale to their child until they reached the age of five
Fairy tales were not always the province of children, though children weren’t shielded from them, either. As Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Chair of Folklore & Mythology at Harvard University 2005 wrote in an article for Slate–
“[Fairy tales] started out as adult entertainment—violent, bawdy, melodramatic improvisations that emerged in the evening hours, when ordinary chores engaged the labor of hands, leaving minds free to wander and wonder. Fairy tales, John Updike has proposed, were the television and pornography of an earlier age—part of a fund of popular culture (including jokes, gossip, news, advice, and folklore) that were told to the rhythms of spinning, weaving, repairing tools, and mending clothes. The hearth, where all generations were present, including children, became the site at which miniature myths were stitched together, tales that took up in symbolic terms anxieties about death, loss, and the perils of daily life but also staged the triumph of the underdog.”
We Love Fairy Tales
There are no original fairy tales–not really. There are earliest recorded versions, and literary versions, and retellings, but fairy tales are fluid. Details, like names and places and even supporting characters change, though central themes usually stay the same from telling to telling, because said themes are part of what makes up any given fairy tale.
Although we can’t trace the origin of a specific fairy tale, we can use fairy tales to illustrate the common origins of humanity. Why? Because many popular fairy tales exist, in some form, all over the world. The commonalities in many tales are so widespread that folklorists use a kind of catalogue, the Aarne-Thompson classification system, for keeping track of tales by their common elements. (Cinderella stories are AT-510 (with sub-types A and B) while Beauty and the Beast stories are AT-425.)
Folklorists aren’t the only ones who love fairy tales. Retellings, such as Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound are still popular with the teen set; The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Caps for Sale, two softer tales, do brisk trade as picture books. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Coraline, original fairy tales with strong ties to fairy tale themes and tropes, are bestsellers amongst YA and adult readers alike.
The vast reach of fairy tales isn’t limited the written word, either. Many popular films and television shows owe large chunks of their plot to fairy tales. Pretty Woman is a clear modern Cinderella; almost every bad-guy-changed-for-love-of-the-girl flick out there has roots in Beauty and the Beast.
The Telegraph’s list of top 10 fairy tales we no longer read:
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
2. Hansel and Gretel
4. Little Red Riding Hood
5. The Gingerbread Man
6. Jack and the Beanstalk
7. Sleeping Beauty
8. Beauty and the Beast
9. Goldilocks and the Three Bears
10. The Emperor’s New Clothes
The Dark Space Inside Our Heads
Fairy tales are dark. In the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in an eddort to fit the slipper and fool the prince. In Bluebeard, a girl finds a room full of the hacked up remains of her husbands previous wives, her sisters included. In some older versions of Sleeping Beauty, it’s not the prince’s kiss that awakes the fair maiden but rather his, er, lust.
Are all fairy tales appropriate for all children and teens? No. But nothing is appropriate for everyone–not even chocolate. Even if authors and publishing houses did give way to the pressure from some parents to sanitize reissues and retellings, it’s likely the older, darker versions of the stories would stick around. As Jack Zipes, a professor of German studies and folklorist, puts it, “There’s a very important reason why these tales stick. “It’s because they raise questions that we have not resolved.”
Raising Questions & Relatability
As most authors and dedicated readers know, all good stories raise questions–and fairy tales are up there with the best. Fairy tales present stories and situations riddled with questions for the discerning reader. Just a few–
- Why doesn’t Cinderella leave home?
- Why is the princess so drawn to the spindle? Why didn’t her parents simply warn her?
- Why does Jack believe the magic beans are magic?
- Why does Bluebeard’s wife open the door, even when she’s been told not to? And why is the story named for him and not her?
- Do only princesses have happily ever afters?
Some argue, though, that fairy tales serve an even deeper purpose, giving readers–particularly children and teens–a framework within which to understand their problems, and themselves. Fairy tales are dark, Tatar admits, but “beneath the horror was always the promise of revenge and restitution, the exquisite reassurance of a happily-ever-after.”
Zipes agrees, going so far as to read some of his own translations at elementary schools around Minneapolis. He “says he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he told the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss, “really relate to us, because we’re telling tales that they experience in their homes.””
Does this mean you should rush home and read an illustrated copy of Bluebeard to your two year old? Of course not. And it’s every parent’s choice, picking books for their child. But while some fairy tales may not be appropriate at all ages, that doesn’t mean we should pick up sanitized copies to fill the gaps. Skipping over the darkness in fairy tales does readers–all readers, not just children–a disservice. We can’t skip over the darkness in real life, but we can give children and teens a way to put it in perspective, and learn about themselves in the process. As Weiss so eloquently writes,
“Fairy tale” may be our shorthand for castles and happy endings, but these classic stories have villains, too – nefarious witches, bloodthirsty wolves, stepmothers up to no good. And scholars have come to see the stories’ dark elements as the source of their power, not to mention their persistence over the centuries. Rich in allegory, endlessly adaptable, fairy tales emerged as a framework for talking about social issues. When we remove the difficult parts – and effectively do away with the stories themselves – we’re losing a surprisingly useful common language.
This week, Baby and I have been sick again – and Baby had a round of shots on top of it all, so it’s been a difficult few days. As a result, I’ve been letting him listen to his favorite song, the theme from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh almost every time he’s upset. He’s loving it. Me, not so much.
Then it occurred to me – Baby responds to this particular song in any format. It doesn’t have to be the original version – I can sing it, and he’s happy. So, after a bit of searching, I tracked down this piano solo:
The piano solo is a much easier format for me. It’s soft and pleasant sounding; I can loop it in the background, and not grind my teeth as it plays and plays and plays. And that started me thinking about the seven stories hypothesis.
The seven stories hypothesis (SSH) is the idea that there are only seven stories in the world. Here’s the basic list:
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs Man/Woman
- Man vs the Environment
- Man vs Technology/Machine
- Man vs The Supernatural
- Man vs Self
- Man vs God/Religion
Some people believe there are only 5 plots (2 & 6, 5 & 7 are grouped together), while others believe there are 20. Others have different names and segments of nature for the plots. These are from Christopher Brooks’ The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (a great read, by the way):
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Regardless, the idea stands: there are only so many stories to go around. So why do we keep buying books? How do authors keep us hooked?
A new take on an old idea.
However you slice it, the stories I tell will be different to the stories you tell. Why? Because we’re different people, with different experiences. True, we’re both people. True, we may both have stories that fit into the same basic plot, but the details, and how we handle the situations, will be different. (A great example of this is Cinderella – Cinderella stories, a blend of Woman vs. the Environment and Woman vs. Self, abound in film and literature.)
Does this mean I catalog all my work? No – I don’t need to. I already know where it fits. What I do do is play the SSH game with other books, looking for stories that fit into the same basic plot as mine. This helps me work out the most important parts of the story. Considering these other stories also helps me find my own version – thinking about how I might have handled a certain storyline allows me to tap into my own experience and make my work authentic.
Next time: authenticity and my workshop with playwright Tim Crouch.