Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two Grimm Novels

"I don't know-I always loved fairy tales.  They seem so-so realistic....What I mean is, all the terrible things that happen in fairy tales seem real.  Or not real, but genuine.  Life is unfair, and the bad guys keep winning and good people die...Evil is real, but so is good.  They always say fairy tales are simplistic, black and white, but I don't think so.  I think they're complicated.  That's what I love about them."  So says Elizabeth, the heroine of Polly  Shulman's novel The Grimm Legacy .  I couldn't agree more.  This is exactly why I love fairy tales too.  Which means whenever there is a chance for me to read a retelling or reworking of one I will take it.  This week I read two books that both take on the tales of the Brothers Grimm, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and the aforementioned The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman.

  Synopsis (from Author's Website):
Reader, beware.  Warlocks with dark spells, hunters with deadly aim, and bakers with ovens retro-fitted for baking children lurk within these pages.  But if you dare, Follow Hansel and Gretel as they walk out of their own story and into the wilds—where magic, terror, and a little bit of humor shine like white pebbles lighting the way.  Come on in. It may be frightening, and it’s certainly bloody, but, unlike those other fairy tales you know, this one is true.  Once upon a time, you see, fairy tales were awesome.
I give Gidwitz high marks for creativity and humor.  He took several Grimm tales and bonded them into a single narrative by sending Hansel and Gretel through all of them.  The prose is simple but engaging and witty at the same time.  If I had received this book for my classroom library while teaching it would have been one of those that required the drawing of sticks to see who got it first.  The waiting list for it would have been the length of the roster.  Look at that cover.  Add to that the synopsis that promises horror and blood and most kids would be salivating.  This is the sort of book even reluctant readers would be eager to get their hands on.

It was, however, not personally my cup of tea.  The characterization of Hansel and Gretel was flat and two dimensional.  When a Fairy Tale is transformed into a full length novel, I expect the characters to be developed more.  There are several places where the Narrator interrupts the narrative to give warnings and commentary.  Sometimes he is funny, but mostly he comes across as if he is saying them with a superior sneer on his face.  Some of his commentary was brilliant.  A lot of it was superfluous.  There is a lot of action in the plot and much of it is violent.  There is, as promised, a lot of blood.  So much in fact that it became a bit ho-hum after a while.  I got a bit bored, "Oh look someone else is bleeding/dying/being, what next?"  The chapter in which Hansel is gambled away to the Devil and visits Hell was when I really began to lose interest in the story.  (Note to my fellow Christian parents:  This chapter is rife with bad theology.  If your kids are reading the book, you might want to read this chapter and discuss it with them.)
Synopsis (from Author's Website):
Lonely at her new school, Elizabeth takes a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository, hoping to make new friends as well as pocket money. The Repository is no ordinary library. It lends out objects rather than books—everything from tea sets and hockey sticks to Marie Antoinette’s everyday wig.  It’s also home to the Grimm Collection, a secret room in the basement. That’s where the librarians lock away powerful items straight out of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales:  seven-league boots, a table that produces a feast at the blink of an eye, Snow White’s stepmother’s sinister mirror that talks in riddles and has a will of its own. When the magical objects start to disappear, Elizabeth and her new friends embark on a dangerous quest to catch the thief before they’re accused of the crime themselves—or the thief captures them.
I enjoyed the time I spent reading this.  It is a delightful read, a combination of mystery and adventure with magic and romance thrown in for good measure.  It is not without its flaws, there are times at the beginning when the story moves a bit slow and some of the dialogue sounds a little forced at times.  But it sure is fun.  Elizabeth is a Cinderella type but the story, rather than being a retelling of one or more tales, is a story with a  magic of its own that incorporates the magic of the Grimm tales too.  I liked the concept of the Repository and the magic it contains.  The magic is not explained and there are several mysteries not totally resolved by the end.  It requires a suspension of belief but that is what Fairy Tales are all about.  The story concentrates on Elizabeth and her three closest friends at the library and I was excited to see the multiple races displayed in this quartet.  Non-white prevalent characters are not easily found in fantasy.  The kids themselves are teens trying to fit in, suffering from unrequited crushes, discovering requited romance, dealing with annoying siblings and learning how to be a true friend.  They are characters to which the audience can relate despite their magical circumstances.  The two romances in the book are believable.  (And one of the boys is my kind of hero, that made it even better.)  The romantic entanglements are limited to flirting and kissing.  There is more than one kissing scene, though they are done tastefully.  I think this novel would be perfect for middle grade girls who are not quite yet ready for the more mature content of some YA novels.

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