Friday, November 26, 2010

Honk If You Still Love Fairy Tales

What if you're not on board with the publishing industry's newly dismissive attitude toward picture book fairy tales for 5- to 8-year-olds? What if you—and your kids—are still in love with fairy tales and their happily-ever-afters? Fortunately, there's a lot of good stuff already in print and still more at your local library.

Picture Book Fairy Tales and Folktales

Since many folk- and fairy tales have been around for a few centuries, illustrators are the place to start, most notably illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, whose romantic renderings continue to appeal to girls wanting a good princess fix. For that matter, her Caldecott Honor book Little Red Riding Hood has never been beat. Neither has her Sleeping Beauty. Or her Snow White. Besides which, her dragon in Caldecott winner St. George and the Dragon is pretty much the coolest one I've ever seen.

Kinuko Craft is the new go-to illustrator for classic fairy tales, though some have argued that her artwork has more adult appeal than child appeal. My favorite story she has illustrated is Marianna Mayer's retelling of Baba Yaga and Vaselisa the Brave—featuring the scariest witch of all time! Gennady Spirin is another fairy tale illustrator whose work, I feel, has a real adult sensibility. Then again, one reason to collect the literary fairy tale is because the art can be so sumptuous.

Paul Galdone brilliantly illustrated many folktales. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a good example of his robust, loose-line style.

Look for Errol Le Cain's illustrations, as well, with their art deco feel. I especially like his Cinderella.

Or find books illustrated by Margot Zemach, particularly The Funny Little Woman and The Three Wishes. Also track down Duffy and the Devil, retold by Harve Zemach. As The New York Times Book Review said of this Caldecott-winning book, "Margot Zemach draws like an intoxicated angel" (qtd on Amazon).

James Marshall created some of the best—and funniest—versions of fairy tales and folktales ever, e.g., his Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and The Three Little Pigs.

Other folk- and fairy tale illustrators of note include Susan Jeffers, Ruth Sanderson, and Caldecott winners Gerald McDermott and Paul O. Zelinsky. Not to mention Anita Lobel—look for her illustrations for Princess Furball, as retold by Charlotte Huck.

As for authors, four big names in folktale retelling are Robert D. San Souci, Rafe Martin, Eric A. Kimmel, and Aaron Shepard. I'll recommend The Talking Eggs for San Souci (a Caldecott Honor book), The Rough-Face Girl for Martin, Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock for Kimmel, and One Eye! Two Eyes! Three Eyes! for Shepard. These and other writers will introduce your child to world folktales, a great way to look beyond the European tradition.

A publisher called Barefoot Books is well known for its collections and single titles of world folktales, so watch for their stuff and check out their catalog.

Or try Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, a Caldecott Honor variation of the Cinderella story set in Africa. And illustrator Rachel Isadora is single-handedly rewriting the Disney canon, producing well-told versions of well-known tales, all set in Africa—most recently The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Princess and the Pea, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel.

A few other favorites of mine are Mr. Semolina-Semolinus by Anthony L. Manna and Christodoula Mitakidou, illustrated by Giselle Potter; The Language of Birds by Rafe Martin, illustrated by Susan Gaber; and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, whether illustrated by P.J. Lynch or Mercer Mayer.

For a gritty, funny American backcountry tale, try The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by jill Wright, illustrated by Glen Rounds.

Of course, we must also acknowledge the greatness that is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith! And the equally wonderful The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Some more standouts, in my opinion:

--Bearskin, by Howard Pyle, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (look for the multicultural families!)
--Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like, by Jay Williams, illustrated by Mercer Mayer
--The Fearsome Inn, a Newbery Honor book by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian
--The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, a Caldecott winner retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
--The Frog Prince, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Binette Schroeder
--The Gunniwolf, retold by Wilhelmina Harper, illustrated by William Wiesner (not the newer version, please no!)
--Heckedy Peg, by Audrey and Don Wood
--Henny-Penny, retold and illustrated by Jane Wattenberg (with photos)
--Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
--Iron John, retold by Marianna Mayor, illustrated by Winslow Pels
--King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, by Audrey and Don Wood
--King Grisly-Beard, by the Brothers Grimm and Maurice Sendak
--The Lady and the Lion, retold by Laurel Long and Jacqueline K. Ogburn, illustrated by Laurel Long
--The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza, retold by Philemon Sturges, illustrated by Amy Walrod
--Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China, a Caldecott winner retold and illustrated by Ed Young
--The Magic Nesting Doll, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, illustrated by Laurel Long
--Mirandy and Brother Wind, a Caldecott Honor book by Patrician C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
--O'Sullivan Stew, by Hudson Talbott
--Ouch! retold by the wonderful Natalie Babbitt, illustrated by Fred Marcellino
--Puss in Boots, translated by Malcolm Arthur, illustrated by Fred Marcellino
--Snow White, retold by talented middle grade author Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett
--Snow White, illustrated by Charles Santore
--Sugar Cane, A Caribbean Rapunzel, by Patricia Storace, illustrated by Raul Colón
--Tam Lin, retold by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak
--The 3 Bears and Goldilocks, retold by Margaret Willey, illustrated by Heather M. Solomon
--The Three Billy Goats Gruff, illustrated by Janet Stevens (note the biggest goat in shades and a black leather motorcycle jacket)
--Three Sacks of Truth, retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Robert Rayevsky
--The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Stephen Mitchell, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
--Tom Thumb, retold and illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson
--Tops and Bottoms, a Caldecott Honor book illustrated by Janet Stevens
--The Twelve Dancing Princesses, retold by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Kinuko Craft
--The Twelve Dancing Princesses, illustrated by Jane Ray
--A Weave of Words, retold by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Raul Colón
--The Well at the End of the World, retold by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Rebecca Walsh
--The Wild Swans, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

There are many more, but I'll stop there! For Cinderella variations, see my annotated list in this post: "How Cinderella Got Twittered."

Original Folktales, a Contradiction in Terms

These would be stories by writers who love fairy tales and folktales and have written their own—I've done one myself. Hans Christian Andersen is the most famous such author, with his The Little Mermaid (the original is very sad), The Emperor's New Clothes, and The Snow Queen, among others. I also really like James Thurber's delightful tongue-in-cheek tale, Many Moons, whether illustrated by Louis Slobodkin or Marc Simont. And Jane Yolen has written some books I treasure, most notably Good Griselle and Dove Isabeau.

And then there's Eleanor Farjeon's long and lovely story, Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Did you know, too, that Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an original picture book folktale? It's got trolls in it! Look for A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, illustrated by Julie Downing. Or perhaps you'd prefer a fairy godmother story by Charles Dickins: The Magic Fish-Bone, illustrated by Robert Florczak.

Collections, Adapted or Academic

Basically, fairy tale collections fall into two categories: adapted collections for children, often used as read-alouds, and lengthy collections of tales for scholars or serious fairy tale fanatics (um, like me!). Just note that a lot of the collections really are for grown-ups, so the stories can be fairly mature, especially when it comes to violence. The Brothers Grimm are famous for that.

Since most of the adapted collections for young readers I own are out of print, let me just recommend that when you choose a collection, you should read some sample stories first to make sure the reteller has a way with words and hasn't completely slaughtered the plots in doing the adapting. The most poetic reteller I've come across is Geraldine McCaughrean, who's done collections of the Greek and Roman myths, for instance. If you want a highly simplified collection, I will suggest DK's A First Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Mary Hoffman and Anne Millard, illustrated by Julie Downing.

Look, too, for collections of stories from different countries. As a child, I loved my collection of Japanese fairy tales, also the selections from the tales of the Arabian Nights that my grandma gave me for Christmas one year. Now you can get stories from every continent and many individual cultures, as well. For instance, being from Los Angeles, I'm quite fond of Jane Curry's collection of California Indian stories, Back in the Beforetime.

Grimms' Fairy Tales are available in various editions, but a couple of classics are The Juniper Tree, selected and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and Tales from Grimm and More Tales from Grimm, illustrated by Wanda Gág of Millions of Cats fame.

For those of you who worry that the fairy tales are all about guy heroes, with passive princesses around every corner, try these feisty feminist collections: Tatterhood and Other Tales and The Maid of the North, both edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps; Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, edited by Kathleen Ragan; and Not One Damsel in Distress, collected and retold by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Susan Guevara. (The Phelps books are for older children, the Ragan collection seems geared toward adults, and the Yolen collection is for kids in about 3rd-6th grades, I'd say.)

Of course, I can scarcely mention fairy tale collections without referring you to Andrew Lang's classic series, named by color: The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, etc. These are densely told, so are not necessarily appealing to all of today's younger readers, but you sure get a lot of stories. Older kids with a strong interest in fairy tales might go for these.

In addition, I would suggest you get your hands on Jane Yolen's comprehensive collection for grown-ups and older children: Favorite Folktales from Around the World.

The Rise of the Retelling

I am happy to report that when one door closes, another door opens. Or maybe a window. Sorry for the cliché, but it does apply in this case—the demise of the picture book fairy tale in contemporary publishing coincides rather uncoincidentally with another trend, the rise of fairy tale retellings for middle grade and young adult readers. It's like when you're watching Peter Pan and everyone yells, "I do believe in fairies!" I won't make a lengthy list here, but a few key titles are Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. See also Adam Gidwitz's new book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, which deliberately incorporates some of the Grimms' gorier tales into a single long story starring Hansel and Gretel, here re-imagined as a prince and princess.

The retelling trend is heartening, as is the knowledge that publishing decisions come in waves—and that our libraries already contain a treasure house of picture book folk- and fairy tales. Long live the fairy tale, in whatever shape it takes during the next century!

Note #1: On Monday, I'll be hosting a discussion of fairy tale retellings over at the Enchanted Inkpot.

Note #2: The definitions of the terms "fairy tale" and "folktale" overlap, but the latter refers specifically to stories collected from the oral tradition and more recently has been used, I think, to refer to stories about animals or those tales beloved of smaller children, such as
Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Three Little Pigs, and Goldilocks and The Three Bears. In popular usage at least, fairy tales have come to mean mostly the princess tales, especially the classics coopted by Disney—Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White. Fairy tales also tend to feature magical powers and spells, more than the simple inclusion of talking animals. It may interest you to know that in the original story, Rapunzel is not actually about a princess, despite the long golden hair and her depiction as a princess in the new Disney movie, Tangled. (On a historical note, the French nobility had such a craze for fairy tales during the 1600s that some of the aristocrats wrote their own, though these often ramble, tending to be more courtly than well plotted. Madame d'Aulnoy is the best known of these writers.)

Note #3: See also my annotated roundup of trickster tales from earlier this year.

Note for Worried Parents: Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations occasionally show semi-nude female figures, e.g., in the wood carvings. Jane Ray's folk art-style versions sometimes include breast-feeding women. And Grimms' tales, if not adapted, are pretty darn grim, with violence, child abandonment, betrayal, cannibalism, etc.

Update #1: At her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, YA fantasy writer Katherine Langrish has been asking guest authors to talk about their favorite fairy tales. This week's guest is the marvelous Megan Whalen Turner. And look back over the previous ten posts in the series! (Thanks to ccwtaylor of Sounis for the link.)

Update #2: Check out this article by Marjorie Ingall in the New York Times Review of Books, "When Stories Had Sharp Teeth," in which she talks about three recent children's books inspired by Grimms' fairy tales.

Update #3: When it comes to the demise of the fairy tale (in general, not in picture book publishing!), folk- and fairy tale expert Jack Zipes begs to differ. Thanks to Amy of Amy's Library of Rock for the link to this article.

Update #4: Bildungsroman has posted a terrific list of fairy tale retellings!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Speaking of Fairy Tales...

I've posted here about the demise of the picture book fairy tale or folktale, and I'm not the only one who's commented on the trend. Now Disney, the great princess profiteer, is joining the club with an announced determination not to make any more movies based on fairy tales. It's the end of an era, as well as a reflection of trends in children's literature. The L.A. Times article reads in part:

So why has the clock struck midnight for Disney's fairy tales?
Among girls, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent — revolving around finding the man of your dreams — have a limited shelf life. With the advent of "tween" TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel's Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon's Miranda Cosgrove.
"By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses," said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. "They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values."

I think the part that gets me is that small girls are already looking at "being hot" and taking on adolescent role models.

Granted, Disney will continue to make money from its library of princess classics for the next three or four hundred years.

And in the world of children's literature, while the fairy tale is no longer being made into picture books, it seems to have morphed into the fairy tale retelling for middle grade and young adult readers.

Still, Disney divorcing the princess? What a strange and sobering thought!

Update #1: Amy has followed up on this post with a great riff on princesses, her favorite childhood book characters, and just how Disney (and pop culture) gets it wrong over at Amy's Library of Rock.

Update #2: See also this post at Once Upon a Blog on Disney's decision, especially in connection with the box office success of Tangled. Thanks to Enchanted Inkpot author Marissa Meyer for the link!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lessons from Eva Ibbotson

I first discovered this author about fifteen years ago thanks to Diana Wynne Jones, who edited a collection called Fantasy Stories in 1994 (Kingfisher). Among them was a selection from Witch Which that charmed the socks off me. I got my hands on a copy of the book and started keeping an eye out for other titles by Ibbotson. Fortunately, the wave of post-Harry Potter fantasy included an increased availability of books by both Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones, and my library grew most happily.

On October 20, 2010, the wonderful Eva passed away, leaving me to reflect on how much I will miss her and on what I have learned from her books as both a reader and a writer.

1. Conjure up the unexpected.

Which Witch is still one of my favorite Ibbotson titles, a great example of the author's ability to come up with a fresh premise and then throw in all kinds of crazy stuff. The book evokes beauty contests and certain reality TV shows I will refrain from naming with its fairy tale-like hunt for the perfect wife. Only the prince in this story is a (semi-)dark wizard. Our story begins when a couple named Canker discovers by dint of library research that there's a specific reason their baby boy is a tad unusual:
It was a shock, of course. No one likes to think that their baby is going to grow up to be a wizard, and a black one at that. But the Cankers were sensible people. They changed the baby's name from George to Arriman (after a famous and very wicked Persian sorcerer), painted a frieze of vampire bats and newts' tongues on his nursery wall, and decided that if he had to grow up to be a wizard they would see to it that he was a good one.
It wasn't easy. Todcaster, where they lived, was an ordinary town full of ordinary people. Though they encouraged little Arriman to practice as much as possible, it was embarrassing to have their birdbath full of gloomy and lopsided vultures and to have to explain to their neighbors why their apple tree had turned overnight into a blackened stump shaped like a dead man's hand.
When Arriman is a grown wizard and longing for a break, his secretary suggests that he marry and have a son to carry on his work. Arriman doesn't really want a witch around the place, but concedes that he probably should marry. Soon the members of the local coven are vying for the prize: a water witch named Mabel Wrack with an octopus for a familiar, a farming witch named Ethel Feedbag whose familiar is a pig, disagreeable twin witches named Nancy and Nora Shouter, the elderly Mother Bloodwort, and Belladonna, a distressingly good witch "with thick, golden hair in which a short-eared bat hung like a little wrinkled prune." Then an evil enchantress named Madame Olympia shows up, not to mention an orphan named Terrance and his pet earthworm Rover, and things get really interesting!

2. So many people are basically good.

Ibbotson's best-known book is probably The Secret of Platform 13. Beneath the train platform is a hidden entrance to a magical island. The door is only open for nine days every nine years, so imagine the dismay of the island's king and queen when their baby son is stolen by the awful Mrs. Trottle during that small gap and they must wait nearly a decade to mount a rescue mission. When they do, they send a motley crew: an elderly wizard named Cornelius, a plant-friendly fairy named Gurkie, a one-eyed ogre named Hans (they make him invisible for the journey except for his one eye, which shows), and a young hag girl named Odge who volunteers rather forcefully. The team hunts down Raymond Trottle, whom they suppose to be the missing prince, but they are dismayed by how horrid he is. Then there's the kitchen boy, Ben, who is exactly the opposite and proves very helpful.

I'm always amazed by how nice Ibbotson's characters can be, while still remaining idiosyncratic and interesting. In the modern world, where Machiavellian traits seem to be on the rise and are even valued, Ibbotson reminds us that there are plenty of goodhearted people out there. (I suspect it's the author's rampant humor that keeps these characters from coming across as cloying or annoying.) You will find that Ibbotson often writes about a group of people working together to make something good happen. This spirit of community and teamwork adds yet another layer of good cheer to the tone of the author's work.

3. Find humor in the quotidian.

In Ibbotson's new book, The Ogre of Oglefort, the three Fates (Norns) are cranky old ladies who are wheeled about in a large hospital bed. When they get mad and decide to punish someone, they call up some ghosts from the bowels of the British train tunnels. And what ghosts they are!
There was the Honker—a very old ghost with one leg and a crutch who had done nothing when he was alive but honk and spit and let out huge revolting gobbets of saliva which got on the seats and the floor of the train for other passengers to slip on.
There was a ghost in city clothes and a bowler hat who had sharpened the point of his umbrella like a rapier and stuck it into the feet of any passenger who got in the train ahead of its owner. The umbrella still had bits of skin and blood clinging to it.
Behind him came the Aunt Pusher....
And the Bag Lady, who would spread out all her things during air raids in the war and keep others from finding a spot. Also the Smoking Girl:
...a very young ghost hung all over with gaudy scarves and floating shawls, and she would have been pretty except that her fingers and the corners of her mouth were stained yellow with nicotine. She had smoked a hundred cigarettes a day, coughing and blowing the smoke at the other passengers on purpose.
There is a headless ghost called The Chewer "whose head was so stuck up with chewing gum that he had left it on the train." But the worst ghost of all is The Inspector, a merciless ticket puncher without a face.
Only two eyes, narrowed to slits, and a mouth set in a slimy calculating leer. The Inspector had had the power over the spectres when they were alive, turning off passengers whose tickets were not in order, pushing them out on to the line, separating mothers from children, making sure that trains stuck in tunnels for hours—and always talking about 'the regulations' to justify his cruellest deeds. His creepily soft call of 'Tickets please' had sent shivers down their backs and even now they were afraid of him.
The Inspector seldom spoke. He did not need to. His ticket puncher, which once had pierced paper, could now pierce ectoplasm.
As you can see, Ibbotson has Roald Dahl's glee for depicting disgusting people with ordinary habits exaggerated for the sake of humor and horror. However, Ibbotson's work tends to have more heart.

4. You can be charming without being cutesy.

It's hard to explain just how delightful Ibbotson's writing is, though I suppose you could write some sort of equation for that alchemy of humor, surprise, and humanity. Let me try giving another example—Dial-A-Ghost, my favorite of Ibbotson's ghost stories. You see, there's a temp agency that assigns jobs out for ghosts, and Miss Pringle and Mrs. Mannering are not the most organized people in the world. When they recieve a request for some sweet ghosts to haunt an abbey and some horrible ghosts to haunt a country manor, they get the orders mixed up, sending the Wilkinsons, a family of five ghosts whose house unfortunately blew up, to the manor and the terrifying Shriekers to the abbey. What no one realizes at first is that Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle have ordered the Shriekers in hopes of scaring their younger cousin to death so that they can inherit Helton Hall; instead they have inadvertently provided the lonely boy, Oliver, with allies as well as friends in the form of the Wilkinsons. There are mysteries to be solved and ghost-busters to be foiled in this clever, tongue-in-cheek adventure.

5. Everyone yearns for a secret something.

Ibbotson's historical romances have recently been reprinted, this time repackaged for the YA market. I find these books to be full of yearning, and only partly for romance. Most of her heroines have a love of the arts or have taken on large projects such as saving broken-down castles.

Ibbotson's trademark humor still shines out in her romances, making her heroines more personable and her plots more clever. For example, in A Countess Below Stairs, when a young countess escapes the Russian Revolution and ends up getting a job as a servant on a British earl's estate, she covers up her inexperience by studying a book on housekeeping. These books have personality!

But if her books for older readers also display the humor found more noticeably in her books for children, I will point out that in Ibbotson's romps for younger readers you will find the poignant sense of longing more obviously evident in her books for older readers. For example, in The Ogre of Oglefort, a princess runs away from home because she really wants to be turned into a white bird and fly free of her family's clueless expectations. The longing for freedom—or for a real home and family, in the case of Ibbotson's orphan characters—is found over and over in her books.

6. Ogres are people, too.

Mermaids, ghosts, wizards, fairies, and ogres: in Ibbotson's hands, magical beings become all too human. For instance, given the chance, the fearsome title character of The Ogre of Oglefort takes to his bed with any number of imaginary ailments. And the wizard Brian would really rather be a cook, except that his mother won't let him do anything for himself even though he's a grown-up. (In fact, she still calls him Bri-Bri.)

7. Turn your sorrows into stories.

We read in a recent Guardian interview with the author:
Ibbotson's writing changed again after the sudden death of her beloved husband in 1998. "I didn't want to go on making jokes because I was too sad," she admits. "I thought, suppose I try writing a straightforward adventure story for children ... " The result was Journey to the River Sea. Set in 1910 in the rainforest city of Manaus in Brazil, it features a classic adventure story plot with Maia, an orphaned girl, a firm but fair governess, cruel relatives and a "hidden identity" device. But at the heart of the novel is the colourful, light-filled, wild landscape of the Amazon and all its flora and fauna, in tribute to Ibbotson's husband who would "upturn stones and show me the lovely things underneath. Beetles and spiders, he loved them all—it was a whole world to him." The book won the 2003 Smarties award, was made into a stage play and has been optioned for a film adaptation.
Ibbotson wrote two more historical adventures for middle grades after Journey to the River Sea: The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool. But she returned to what she called her "younger, more rambustious [books]" with her last story, The Ogre of Oglefort.

8. Kids deserve happy endings—or at least, hopeful ones.

Another Guardian interview quote:
Whether jokey or more serious, however, Ibbotson's readers are always guaranteed a magical tale and the reassurance that, ultimately, the young hero or heroine will triumph and the baddies receive their comeuppance. The current trend for more shocking stories in children's literature surprises her. In her own childhood, books were a comfort; an escape route from her "pillar-to-post" existence." ... Perhaps when I began to write the novels for children I was harking back to how much pleasure I got from books like The Secret Garden," she says. "My impression is that the writing has got better and better but the books have got darker and darker. I don't know what I think about that, being so addicted to making children happy."

And so, for instance, in a book like The Dragonfly Pool, children at a progressive school during the days leading up to World War II put together an international dance festival and use it to rescue a young prince from his country's enemies. Their goals are idealistic, but the fact that they pull it off with a non-saccharine "Small World" flair makes for a heartening as well as an adventuresome read.

9. When in doubt, add an aunt.

This quote is also from the Guardian interview: "'When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in,' says Eva Ibbotson, matter-of-factly. 'I find it difficult to write a book without aunts. With The Ogre I had to put in three aunts, if I remember rightly.'"

10. Retain your sense of whimsy.

Ms. Ibbotson was 85 when she died last month. If you will read the interview I keep quoting, you'll find a lively, humorous mind, a childlike sense of curiosity and amusement that kept this author and her work fresh during a career that spanned decades. Eva Ibbotson—and her aunts—will be greatly missed.



I own a number of Ibbotson's books, including her latest, The Ogre of Oglefort, which I obtained by cheating; i.e., I ordered it from England a few weeks ago in a spirit of nostalgia and mourning. (It isn't due out in the United States till Summer 2011. British cover shown above.) Here's my list for your reference:

Middle Grade Ghost Stories

--The Haunting of Granite Falls (originally The Haunting of Hiram C. Hopgood)
--The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
--The Great Ghost Rescue

Middle Grade Fantasy

--The Secret of Platform 13
--Which Witch?
--Island of the Aunts (
or Monster Mission)
--Not Just a Witch

--The Ogre of Oglefort

Note that you can get Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13, and Island of the Aunts in an omnibus edition.

Middle Grade Historical Adventure

--Journey to the River Sea
--The Star of Kazan
--The Dragonfly Pool

Young Adult Historical Romances

--The Countess Below Stairs
--The Reluctant Heiress
--A Company of Swans
--A Song for Summer
--The Morning Gift

Books I Haven't Read

--The Worm and the Toffee Nosed Princess
--Madensky Square
--A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories (adult/YA)

See also author Laura Amy Schlitz's very lovely obituary for Eva Ibbotson. Thanks to Charlotte Taylor of Charlotte's Library for the interview and obituary links.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some discreetly handled sex in a couple of the YA historical romances, which were originally written for adults (e.g., The Morning Gift and A Company of Swans).

Friday, November 12, 2010


Your friendly neighborhood Book Aunt has the flu. Back next week...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Review of Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

I feel like a romance cliché: I fell in love with this book at first sight and never fell out. Which is ironic, since Dash & Lily's Book of Dares is pretty much dedicated to being anti-cliché when it comes to romance.

At first glance, it seems that this inspired pairing of authors, Cohn and Levithan of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist fame, are simply telling another lively tale of two young Manhattanites meeting cute and falling for each other. But it shouldn't take long for you to realize that the authors' true intentions involve shredding our culture's ubiquitous romantic comedy conventions and leaving us, not with answers, but with questions—or rather, with the endless question of the individual human: "Can I ever truly be understood?" Their answer seems to be, "No, but you can nevertheless be loved."

I recently had a conversation with one of my students, a teenage boy who just broke up with his girlfriend and was feeling bad about it. He said, "Everybody's a stranger, and always will be." This seemed to frighten him. I told him I was going to loan him Dash & Lily's Book of Dares. "It's all about that," I said. "But it still manages to have a happy ending."

As our story begins, it's Christmas time in the Big Apple, and Dash has fooled each of his divorced parents into thinking he's with the other one so he can spend Christmas in surly Grinch-like solitude. Well, perhaps not solitude, though he's definitely a young Grinch in the making: Dash discovers a red notebook incongruously shelved in a grand used bookstore called the Strand. (It's real! With an alleged eighteen miles of books.) The notebook challenges Dash to a little scavenger hunt in the bookstore, managing to embarrass him almost immediately. Dash picks up the gauntlet and returns the favor by issuing a dare of his own. Cynical Dash is pleased to realize that the notebook is obviously from an equally sardonic teenage girl trying to see if she can meet her male counterpart.

Only it's not. Dash doesn't know this for pages on end, but the girl, Lily, didn't start the notebook, though she does quickly enter into the spirit of things and keep it going. The notebook is actually the brainchild of her older brother, who is hoping to keep her entertained and out of his hair so he can enjoy spending the holidays with his new guy. (Their parents have disappointed Lily by going on a second honeymoon.)

Lily is about as far from a Grinch as you can get, a starry-eyed idealist who love-love-loves Christmas. She even drops her atheism annually so she can sing the religious Christmas carols with proper enthusiasm. While she's a little off the wall, Lily is not a major risk-taker, partly because she has a huge, overly protective extended family.

Yet this is not exactly a book about opposites attracting, either. It's more the story of assumptions and yearnings, the way no one can ever be the fulfillment of another person's romantic daydreams. You'll find that Dash is quite the philosopher-prince. His musings get a little over-the-top in spots, evoking the spirits of thirty-something authors past and present—but it all pays off, I assure you.

I'm afraid I'm making the book sound serious, whereas it's just as much a cheerily frenetic sleigh ride through New York City. The dares in the red notebook are creative and often funny, many involving field trips to urban landmarks. There's a spirit of friendly one-upsmanship, just as you would expect from a series of dares. For example, after Lily sends mall-hating Dash to Macy's at the height of the holiday shopping season to look for reindeer gloves, he retaliates by making her go to a matinee showing of a film called Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer with a horde of moms and toddlers.

Speaking of movies, the absolute funniest thing in the book, hands down, is the spoof of a Pixar movie and how Dash and Lily respond separately to having seen it. I laughed my head off.

A running joke is that Lily has colorful relatives working all over town whom she enlists to facilitate her dares. More than one of these relatives describes Dash as "snarly," which leads to the creation of a muppet-like creature that Lily names Snarly. (Lily's own historic nickname makes an appropriate pairing.) When Dash sees the critter, he says, "It looks like Animal and Miss Piggy had sex.... And this was the spawn." His best friend Boomer responds, "My eyes! ...My eyes! I can't stop seeing it now that you've said it!" Boomer is a great character in his own right. He tends to talk in exclamation marks.

"Cinderella was such a dork," Lily writes in the red notebook. This from the girl who dons a contemporary version of the glass slippers and loses one shoe at a ball (okay, nightclub). We also get dog walking, soccer goal-keeping, wax celebrities, ex-girlfriends, snowball fights, militant mommies, police cars, and Internet video scandals of the baby-catching variety. Not to mention marvelous secondary characters, including an extremely cool Bohemian great-aunt. (Best quote I've read recently: The late Eva Ibbotson said that whenever she was having trouble writing a book, she just added an aunt. Not that I'm biased in favor of aunts or anything.)

Keep an eye out for a couple of extra romances (or divorces) that play out around the edges of the tale, further embellishing the authors' book-length riff on the unpredictable nature of real-life relationships. As Dash's ex puts it, "I was never the girl in your head. And you were never the boy in my head. I think we both knew that. It's only when we try to make the girl or boy in our head real that the true trouble comes."

Dash and Lily begin to matter more to each other than they're supposed to as the dares continue, and in a way, that's because they haven't met. When they do finally run into each other, it's a disaster, but not for the reasons you would think. Turns out Dash, in his own way, is just as idealistic as Lily, and perhaps less resilient. After that encounter, they take turns being fearful and fearless, until eventually they come to a sort of truce that bodes well for the future. Because there's more to Dash than being snarly, just as there's more to Lily than her affinity for Christmas carols.

This is teen romance writ large, irresistibly so. It's romance over-scripted, over-analyzed, and yet, somehow, played out like a nice long game of Monopoly between two basically nice people. Seems pretty apt in today's world. I give you: Dash & Lily. Read their Book of Dares. And then watch for Book Two—apparently the authors fell hard for these characters, too, and are planning to make it a series. They've got a great cast to work with!

You might also like Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Lauren Myracle, and Maureen Johnson.

Note for Worried Parents: You'll probably be concerned about the occasional use of the F word and a few crude remarks from the teenage boys. Also, there's some teen drinking, though the results are not appealing. It's mentioned here and there that Lily's brother and his new boyfriend are sleeping together, but Dash and Lily don't have sex with anyone in this book.

A Review of Under the Green Hill by Laura L. Sullivan

Though this is low fantasy, it has a stately tone that echoes Tolkien's work, as well as a premise and a setting that felt enough like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to me that I had to check to be sure the characters really had access to e-mail. (They do!) According to Kirkus, you should also be reminded of E. Nesbit's work.

The story begins with a new fever that is hitting the children of the United States. To protect them from the illness, Professor Morgan and his wife send Rowan, Meg, Silly (Priscilla), and James to visit their great-great aunt Phyllida Ash and her husband Lysander. As human guardian of the most important fairy locale in England, Phyllida is understandably concerned: this is a seventh year, when the fairies select what they blithely call a champion and the humans fearfully call a teind. As Phyllida puts it, "Four children here, at Midsummer, on a seventh year? Even the villagers hide their children at the teind times." And that's even before she discovers that the professor's colleagues have shoehorned in two extra kids: horrible Finn and timid, allergy-prone Dickie. (Though Meg is secretly intrigued by Finn's good looks, even she has to admit that he's sneaky and arrogant.)

Phyllida duly gives the children a list of rules when they arrive at the Rookery. In addition, she tells them they are to stay in the house (or rather, the mansion) that night while she and the other adults attend a local festival. Naturally, her words are guaranteed to inspire someone like Finn to dare the others to sneak out and spy on the festival. It never occurs to Phyllida, who we learn is known as the Guardian or simply The Lady, that modern children might find her rules so ridiculous that ignoring them feels entirely sensible. After all, Phyllida informs the kids that the forest is off limits and they must not swim in the stream. They must never try to ride the wild ponies or eat food that anyone offers them. They must not give their name to anyone who asks, but should answer politely. And they must not kill the ants, who are "really fairies who have grown very old."

Um, right, the kids think, rolling their eyes, and that night they proceed to break three of the rules.

To the fairies, the Morgan children are a gift, since the family has a little fairy blood. Disguised as a boy, Puck-like Seelie Prince Gul Ghillie quickly herds the Morgan children to the Green Hill, where the lovely Fairy Queen asks Rowan to be her champion in the Midsummer War. Glamoured, he agrees, to the dismay of his sister Meg. (As the author points out more than once later in the book, the teind and even the "war" are no sacrifice for the fairies, but they mean death to one of the human champions.)

In the meantime, Finn and Dickie have become separated and have their own rather terrifying encounters with fairy folk. Finn concludes that the Morgan children are leaving him out deliberately. He recruits Dickie to research fairies in the estate's library, then uses the information to spy on the Fair Folk. In the process, Dickie ends up with a lot of knowledge and some secrets of his own.

As for the Morgan children, they set about training for war in the garden, coached by Gul Ghillie, who provides them with ancient, magical weapons. Meg continues to worry about Rowan, trying to think of a way to stop him from going into battle. But even she falls under the spell of Gul and the weapons, mastering the use of an enchanted longbow.

Sullivan explains things like fairy glamour and history thoroughly along the way, so that to a certain extent, this book acts as a primer about fairy folk and how dangerous they can be. (In this regard, it reminded me of Lesley M.M. Blume's recent treatise on urban fairies, Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practicial Guide by Miss Edythe McFate.) You'll find a cavalcade of imps, nymphs, and legendary monsters in Under the Green Hill, together with handy information such as how to acquire the ability to see fairies and how to escape from malevolent oak trees.

Here's the Morgans' first glimpse of the Fairy Queen:
The woman, or the form of a woman, was mounted on a tall charger with a pale-gray dappled coat, a beast as much beyond the clumping plow horses of the May Day march as this woman was beyond the May Queen. Her mount was arrayed in jewels of white and green that seemed not merely to reflect light, but to give off light of their own. He pranced on legs that appeared too delicate for such a tall animal—he stood as high as a draft horse, with a broad chest and haunches that bunched with power held in check. He seemed aware of the value of his burden, and walked so lightly that his gilded hooves bent no grass, left no mark of his passing.

Though Sullivan strains credulity on occasion, e.g., not letting Phyllida and nosy Finn catch the Morgan children at their endless weapons training in the garden, or having the children master said weapons with astonishing ease, these are relatively minor considerations, and she provides some nice plot twists as the story progresses. Who is the other champion, and why? Will Finn get caught spying on the fairies? Will Meg find a way to save her brother's life?

A sequel is obviously in the making, as the Morgan children continue their association with the fairies, for better or for worse. Meg, in particular, seems to be a Chosen One. So look for a second book in a year or two.

I'll end by pointing out that the solemnity of Sullivan's style is both a blessing and a curse. It's a poetic approach that suitably reflects the grandeur of the fairy court and its human Guardian; however, it might strike some children as being too ponderous. If, on the other hand, you or your bright young reader is tired of all those warp-speed, television-style fantasies and want a deeper pool to swim in, Under the Green Hill is the book for you.

You may also like an older book with a similar mythology and setting, Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Morrigan.

Note for Worried Parents: There's peril here, a couple of violent acts, and a lot of scary fairies. In general, the tone is mature (in the grown-up sense). This book would probably be best for older or more sophisticated middle grade readers.

Quick Picks: More Fairies, Plus Leviathans

Three YA books with fairies, goblins, and other legendary creatures. In each one, a girl learns about her magical heritage and must decide where to go from there. Apparently, the best use of an otherworldly heritage is to save somebody, whether it be fairies, a kidnapped father, or a king.

Enchanted Ivy
by Sarah Beth Durst—In this paean to the Princeton campus, high school junior Ivy strives for early admission by going on what turns out to be a fairy-linked scavenger hunt. She's not even sure what she's looking for and at first wonders if she's losing her mind, since magic is the last thing she believes in. But maybe there's another explanation for her mother's mental illness, and maverick boy Tye with his tiger-striped hair is awfully cute. Of course, so is preppy nice guy Jake. Ivy finds herself in the middle of a war between the fairies and the supposed guardians on the human side, discovering her true heritage and purpose along the way. A fun read if you've been enjoying the recent crop of teen fantasy romances. Durst's use of the campus gargoyles is especially memorable (see cover art). This teen book has a bit of an ick factor when you find out what the bad guys have been doing to the fairies; otherwise only medium dark. I should note that Durst's vision of Princeton is so magical that the fairy realm seems dull by comparison!

Tyger Tyger by Kersten Hamilton—Hmm, more fairy wars! Only here the fairy folk are all called goblins, so this book is the start of the Goblin Wars series. Teagan Wylltson's best friend Abby has been having dreams of trouble for Tea. Then Teagan's bad boy "cousin" Finn Mac Cumhaill comes to stay and she feels that absolute soulmate zing, though she tries to ignore it. Pretty soon Teagan begins seeing some very unpleasant otherworldly creatures, like the hideous and sly cat-sídhe. Her life goes downhill rather quickly as her mother dies and her father disappears. Next an awful social worker comes sniffing around. With some help from Finn's grandmother, Tea and her magically musical little brother Aiden, along with Finn, enter the goblin realm to find Teagan's father. Apparently the worst of the goblins, Fear Doirich, long ago cursed Teagan's family and now takes a special, malevolent interest in the Wylltson children. This book is a dark YA fantasy with a promise of romance to come. Has a few plot bumps, but intriguing secondary characters, an appropriately shiver-inducing rendering of the goblins and their world, and a very nice use of music.

Secondhand Charm by Julie Berry—If you liked The Amaranth Enchantment, try this author's latest, in which a girl discovers her heritage in relation to a strange sea creature, the size-changing leviathan. Given a scholarship by the handsome king, Evie leaves her village and sets out for the capitol with her friend Prissy and the boy next door, Aiden, who would like to be more than friends if Evie will let him. After being waylaid by bandits, Evie makes her way to the palace, where her plans to study medicine are put on hold as she unexpectedly becomes the attendant to the foreign princess who is betrothed to the king. But a shipwreck during the journey has given Evie a new knowledge of who she is, and she discovers that Princess Annalise has similar secrets. When Evie suddenly finds herself embroiled in a plot against the king and his kingdom, she must use her new abilities to save them. Another book for teens, this one reads like an older MG. A fairly cheerful tale with solid girl appeal. Readers who like animals and pets will enjoy watching Evie get used to her slithery-sweet new companion as she saves the day. (Check out an interview with Julie Berry at Gamila's Book Review.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Awwww. Also Wow!

This isn't like me, but: I'm sort of speechless! Cutest. Thing. Ever. Mostly Bit, but I'm awfully fond of those googly eyes. (If you haven't read my books, they include a magic scarf with lots of little eyes.) Clever Brandy! I would swipe the photos, but I'll let you discover them in their proper place over at Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

In case it isn't obvious, this is why we write...

And now I'm trying to think which book I fell in love with as a child and read over and over. Probably A Little Princess and Ballet Shoes. Also the Narnia books and Harriet the Spy. What about you?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ten Favorite Picture Books

Author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier has been inviting bloggers, authors, illustrators, and others who are in love with picture books to guest post at his blog Hey Rabbit! about their 10 favorite picture books, and today he's linking my list. My only caution is that I actually love soooo many picture books, but this list represents a selection of favorites. You can also read my extensive post from March 2009 about the best picture books of all time, as well as Betsy Bird's poll results of the Top 100 in picture books. Or there's my Amazon Listmania list, "Simply Beautiful Picture Books"!

If the thought of wonderful picture books makes you, too, giddy with delight, how about leaving a note listing some of your own favorites in the comments?

Update: Check out the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2010. Thanks to Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 for the link. (She was one of the judges!)