Breaking the Spell: Tales of Enchantment

Selected by Sally Grindley

Breaking the Spell: Tales of Enchantment is an anthology of tales, each written by a different author. From what I can tell, only one of these tales is a retelling, but each has a traditional folktale flavour.

The stories included are:

  • The Paper Garden – Tony Ramsay
A King Midas-esque tale, where an Emperor, annoyed at the elements ruining his enjoyment of his garden, orders his workers to enclose the garden, piece by piece. Eventually, his actions have devastating consequences for the garden he prides so much.
  • Dancing in the Air – Joan Aiken
A Spanish tale of a poor young boy named Carlos who is banned from a church where beautiful music is played. The Bishop declares that he will be allowed to return until people dance one foot above the ground. After an encounter with a gypsy, Carlos is given a kettle that seems to play a magic tune just for him.
  • The Prince with the Three Fates – retold by Ann Turnbull
From Egypt, now, a Prince is born, destined to be killed by a snake, a crocodile, or a dog. Desperate to save their son, his parents lock him away, but he is determined to live his life, and goes out into the world to defeat his fates.
  • The Queen of the Bees – Vivian French
What do you do when you have three daughters? You send them on a quest to find men, of course! Two bratty sisters and their lovable, naive, pure younger sister set out to find their destinies. Only the youngest, helpful to a fault, has a bit of help from the animal kingdom.
  • The Witch’s Ride – Jane Yolen
When dealing with witches, not everything is as it seems. When Ewan falls for beautiful Emily early, he’s really marrying a witch. When she uses him for her witchy deeds, it’s up to his mother to save him from his bride.
  • The Snake Princess – Jamila Gavin
Set in India, a King falls in love with the Snake Princess. Soon after their marriage, he finds himself changing; becoming scaly and cold-blooded. With the help of a venerable yogi, he discovers the source of his change, but must make a decision between his life and his love.
  • Chantelle, the Princess Who Could Not Sing – Joyce Dunbar
After being cursed by a jealous aunt, Chantelle’s beautiful voice flies away. After her betrothal to a prince leaves her humiliated, she tries her best to learn to sing again. When she runs away and once again discovers her voice, she realizes it comes with a price to pay… can the prince save her?

These are all unique as well as familiar, as a folktale should be. Familiar tropes told over again. While I love the stories (and I really do), what impresses me the most is the artwork. All done by Susan Field, she manages to make them all look the same while incorporating flavours from the different countries. The Japanese, Spanish, Indian and Egyptian stories can be placed just by looking at the artwork, which I love.

This is a good book for those who are looking for bedtime stories for their children. It offers up a nice variety, and will appeal to a family with different appetites in their stories. Alternatively, it makes a great book for someone working on their own reading skills, trying to make their way into slightly longer books. I’ve personally found that short stories are great for this, as they can read as much as the whole book or as little as one story at a time. This lets them set their own pace without overwhelming them.

Suggested Ages: 7-12

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The Balloon Tree

By Phoebe Gilman

Have you ever told your child a bedtime story? I haven’t, but I’ve read reports of people who have. You start out with something fairly mundane – like a car ride. And then all of a sudden you take off to the moon and the car ride story turns into an epic adventure against the furry bat-men of Mars. Or something like that.

That how this book feels to me. It’s like Gilman’s children asked for a story about Princesses AND balloons, and this story is what resulted. I love it.

The Balloon Tree has it all. A princess in a castle, an evil Archduke, peril, secret passageways, a desperate quest, magic, salvation, and balloons. Pair that incredible artwork that features a ton of interesting, minute details, stories within the art and you have an amazing book.

Princess Leora’s father has to leave for a tournament. Scared of her uncle the Archduke, the King tells her that if anything goes wrong she should just release a bunch of her beloved balloons from the top of the tower and he will come rushing home to her. A great plan until the Archduke attempts a coup, destroying all the balloons so Leora can’t alert her father. With some advice from her friendly court wizard, Leora must now find one whole balloon so that she can summon her father.

Epic.

I think this book is a must-have for any little girls library (and little boys too). I’ve said it before (see Something From Nothing), but I love Gilman’s artwork. Not only does she create fantastic (and touching) stories, but she creates incredible artwork. The main pictures are well done, colourful, interesting, and lively, yes, but there’s more. Sometimes she shows the knights traveling, or creating movement by having someone break the barrier. It’s sheer magic.

Just look at the colours, the attention to detail! And these are two of the less Easter Eggy pages.

To me, this book is a lost classic. I think we read it to pieces, and I have no idea where my copy has gone (thus, “lost”). If you notice in the cover picture, this book has been around for 20 years, which tells me a lot of good children’s books came out in the 80’s. But more then that, it’s a testament to how good Gilman’s books are. I think children still know the name Jillian Jiggs, who has wonderful pigs that I made my mother make for me. And if you don’t know Jillian Jiggs, you are a heartless person who either suffered cruelly as a child, or is making your child suffer. Go, go, discover Phoebe Gilman. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Suggested Ages: 3-6+ (or all ages)

 

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon

By Nancy Willard

If you were to ask me to give one adjective to describe this book, it would be “quirky”.

Why quirky? Well, what other book have you ever read where the main character was a sullen, childish moon who wanted a nightgown? Who then goes down to Earth, tries on lots of nightgowns, buys one, and disappears? Never! Unless you’ve read this book before. After the moon goes missing devastation and darkness abound, naturally.

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon is a wonderful little walk through the wonderfully bizarre, with the moon acting just like a child. She’s sullen, she’s determined, she’s happy when she gets what she wants, she’s defiant, uncooperative, and longing for a little comfort. We won’t ask questions about how she wears the nightgowns, or how she doesn’t crush the world when she comes to sleep in some little girl’s bed; that would ruin the quirky, free-flowing nature of this story.

The artwork is a bit up and down for me. The watercolours are amazingly done, and I love the imagination the illustrator uses on the storefronts. There are some elements of the art that I adore. The pages where the Moon and Sun have their first conversation is my favorite of the whole book. Landscapes seem to be David McPhail’s specialty, as sometimes his people land flat. There’s no doubt that the illustrations work well with the text, and reflect Willard’s strange world.

This book is almost 30 years old, and still available for purchase online. That speaks volumes to me about how good this book is for children. My copy of the book is wrinkled, water-warped and loved to death. It’s nonsense; enjoyable, wonderful nonsense that we all need more of in our lives. Hit up your bookstore or library and give this book a try for your younglings.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

This Day, We are Masters

This is less about children’s media, and more about celebrating personal accomplishments! May 24th was Graduation Day for myself and my classmates as we received those wonderful, beautiful, and expensive pieces of paper that allow us to practice our chosen trade. Congratulations to all my beautiful friends, and thanks to all those who helped support us through the last 2 years!

Officially a Master!

Big Sarah’s Little Boots

By Paulette Bourgeois & Brenda Clark

When we’re small, small issues take on big importance. So when a favorite toy breaks, or you rip a dress, or outgrow a favorite article of clothing – that becomes a big deal.

Unless you’re a destructive little beast like me and purposefully destroy the lovely clothes your parents gave you. But even then, you’ll probably enjoy this story.

Big Sarah’s Little Boots was one of my childhood favorites. The titular character, Big Sarah, loves her rainboots. They’re bright, shiny yellow, and when she jumps in the puddles they go SQUISH and the water goes KERSPLAT! But then, one day Sarah tries to put them on, and her boots have shrunk! She tries everything – pulling on them, growing them in the garden, playing tug-of-war with them – in an attempt to make them bigger, but nothing works. Time for Big Sarah to get bigger boots!

Big Sarah’s Little Boots is a nice book helping explain to children that it’s okay to move on to something new; you might like it just as much (if not more) than what you had before. The majority of the story, however, is dedicated to Sarah trying, so very hard, to cling to her beloved old boots – just like any kid would do when presented with change. I know I can say that, at 15 5, I was not very good at adapting to change. If you need proof, just go visit an elementary school on the first day of class and see how many children are crying.

The story is great. The text is simple and easy, with onomatopoeia to make it more fun. There’s no rhyming pattern, but it flows easily, and there’s enough repetition to make it stick.

There is a lot of white space at the beginning of the book, but it fades around the middle point, when Sarah tries to make her boots stretch. It’s this middle part that meshes text and images the best, and are among the best in the book. It helps immensely that the pictures are amazing. I know I say this a lot, but it’s true; great pictures make a children’s story, and children get the best illustrators. I can’t tell you what medium is used, but the colours are bright, the artwork is amazing, and it’s so true to life some of them could almost be pictures. There’s one picture of Sarah pulling her socks off in an attempt to get the boots on, and it’s so incredible I just want to pin it to my wall. The details in these pictures will make them a lot of fun for children to look through; I remember the details of the skipping ropes tied to her boots, and the different styles of rainboots she tries on, from when I was a kid.

If you can find this book, I suggest you pick it up. It was published in 1987 in Toronto, so it’s probably not the most accessible, but I’m sure it’s out there. It’s cute, educational, beautifully written and illustrated. If your child has a favorite toy/piece of clothing/binky/blanky/etc., they’ll be able to relate to this book. Everyone has gone through the same growing pains as Sarah, and it will show them that they’re not alone.

~

And since we’re coming up to mother’s day, I will give incredible props to my mom that 99% of my books from my childhood have survived as long as they did in as good a condition as they did. Every child should have the opportunity to find all their old books in the basement and be able to raid them for a blog!

Love you mom ❤

~

Recommended Ages: 3-6

Cinder

By Marissa Meyer

Cyborg Cinderella. The words evoke feelings of intrigue and dismay: the originality of such a concept vs the worry of it being done badly. Twisting a fairytale, after all, is nothing new (though it is eternally fun); there are so many versions of Cinderella/Snow White/Red Riding Hood/etc. that I feel they should be a genre unto themselves. Some of the adaptions are unique, funny, and engaging; good reads. Others are horrendous; I think we can all agree that we’ve read some awful adaptions.

Cinder is the tale of Linh Cinder, master mechanic of New Beijing. Set in the future, long after World War IV, after humans have colonized the moon and mutated into a separate race, Cinder is a cyborg orphan making a living as a street mechanic for her stepmother. An outcast because of her cyborg status (among other things, she has a fake arm, leg, spine and heart), Cinder is volunteered as a test subject for a deadly plague that has been decimating New Beijing. This, unfortunately, interferes with a job from Prince Kaito, who needs her to urgently fix is android. Throw in a sick sister, a wicked stepmother, an evil Queen bent on world domination, politics and love, Cinder has her hand full.

I found Cinder to be a good read. Nice and easy, with a lot of pseudo-science that made it seem nice and real. The plot was somewhat predictable (as ya do), but at the same time I found it a really good play on the normal Cinderella mythos. Cinder the Cyborg turned into a really unique concept that came off much, much better then I had hoped for when looking at this book for the first time.

I’m usually leery about first-time novels, because I feel like authors lose a lot of their creative power against editors’ whose job it is to make money. I’ve been impressed by both Cinder and Legend for their unique stories, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from both. Cinder is just getting started, developing what promises to be a good trilogy. I don’t mind predictability in my beginnings so long as the ending doesn’t disappoint. I have faith that Meyer will take her Cyborg Cinderella (I love that alliteration) and run with it. Hopefully to the Moon and back.

(Read the book to get the joke)

Recommended Ages: Teen

Legend

By Marie Lu

I’m a member of the online art community deviantArt; I’m sure some of you have stumbled across that website in the past, and it showcases some incredible instances of art. One the artists I followed early on was an artist and aspiring author, mree. She’s a very talented artist, and spent a lot of time developing character designs for her written characters.

Well, congratulations mree (aka Marie Lu)! You need aspire no more!

Around Christmas 2011, Marie’s debut novel, Legend hit shelves. It’s very on-trend right now; a dystopian world reminiscant of The Hunger Games where all children must go through a Trial at the age of 10. The score you receive at the Trial will impact what happens to you later on – labour camps, drudgery job, or elite. Allow me to assure you that this is not The Hunger Games. I really enjoyed the setting, the characters, and how Lu creates a world that sucks you in.

Legend takes place in a future where the United States of America no longer exist. Instead we have the Colonies (as yet unseen), and the Republic. Our story takes place in the Republic, and splits between Day and June. Day is a criminal in the vein of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, derailing the Republics plans, and helping provide for his family. June is a prodigy with a perfect Trial score, slated to be one of the most elite Republican soldiers. Their paths cross when June is tasked with tracking Day down, an endeavor that has so far proved futile for the army.

The biggest plus of Legend is the setting. It takes place in California, but it could be anywhere. And yet, there are ties to the physical place, and hints of the old USA. While a fairly short story (all things considered), the world feels comfortable, like you could visit it. There’s nothing shoved in there to make it fit, like some stories I’ve read. The plot reads well, and everything flows into each other. A lot of plot threads are left unanswered, but I will wait for the sequel(s), and assume that they will be answered there.

I admit, I wasn’t eager to pick up Legend. I did, however, recommend it to my chiropractor, who bought it as a Christmas present for his wife. After she read it, she started gushing about it, and lent it to me to read. I was completing my final semester of my Masters at the time, and didn’t have the time; I’m ashamed to admit I held onto that book for almost 3 months. When I finally did pick it up, my initial feeling was “meh”; I felt that it was generic. Then I really got into it and changed my mind. That’s what I would call the trick to this novel: don’t get stuck on thinking it’s a Hunger Games knockoff. It’s not, I promise.

Lu gives us a story of two star-crossed lovers, two 15-year-olds trying to find answers to what their leaders are doing and why. There’s romance, action, scheming, tragedy and the promise of more. Many of the plot threads are left hanging, with the promise of resolution in later books. I look forward to sequels, and seeing the future adventures of June and Day. I hope that Lu can continue with what makes her book unique, and avoids the cliches that dominate the market today.

Edit: Marie just released the news of her sequel in the Legend trilogy. The second book will be titled Prodigy, scheduled for release on Jan 23rd, 2013.

Book Covers

I’ve mentioned before about how, at the book store I worked at, you could see the immediate difference between 9-12 books, and the teen books. Not because they were in different sections, but because the covers would change from interesting and colour to black/white/grey colours. There might have been a splash of dark red from the Scorpio cover, or blue from Beka Cooper, but all the covers are dark. Marketing towards natural teen angst, I guess.

I wonder if publishers ever realize how much they are, potentially, pushing a market away? I know when I was in my teens, I skipped straight from 9-12 books to adult novels, because the teen books were too depressing, melodramatic, and boring. Or, at least that was my opinion at the time. There were exceptions.

Cover trends vary from year to year, and can be mapped. I know they have been; 2 years ago the “it” colour was blue. Before it was black. Can you think why? (Hint: Twilight, and Mockingjay) Now we’re back to the dominant bleak cover scheme, courtesy of the popularity of dystopian stories and paranormal (re: undead) romances.

I came across a great article from Stacked! talking about covers, and this is just one in a series; I recommend it. What she has to say is quite insightful, and I agree with a lot of it. Primarily a point made at the beginning though: all these covers look alike. How does this help us get to the story the author wrote? How does this help distinguish it? They might be pretty, but how well they sell is not something I can answer.

So head over to http://www.stackedbooks.org/2012/04/cover-trends-female-body.html for a more in-depth analysis of book covers. It will make you think, the next time you go to a book store or library and peruse the covers.

Mirror, Mirror

It’s going to be quite the battle this year, with two Snow White movies due out in 2012. The winner of the race into theaters, of course, is Mirror, Mirror, starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. I admit, I’m torn about this movie: on one hand, I know it could have been so much better; on the other I loved it.

The story is fairly typical of a reimagined Snow White. Father dies/disappears, Queen takes control of the kingdom and it falls into neglect. Sweet, innocent Snow White is ordered killed when she becomes a threat, she escapes, falls into the clutches of the seven dwarves. Somewhere along there a prince appears, a mystical fight is waged, an apple is offered, and the Queen is vanquished forever.

I’ll start with my negatives. First, Lily Collins is a beautiful girl, but she’s not the most emotive actor. Mainly, she’s sitting there, posing prettily for the camera (which she does very well). In the action scenes she does tolerably well, and when she stops trying to be pretty I’m quite happy.

There are few plot conundrums as well. First and most obvious is Prince Alcott’s friend Renboch. He appears in the kingdom with the Prince, then disappears, not to be seen or heard from again until the final scene. When he does reappear, it doesn’t appear that he’s accomplished the one mission he’s been given, making his character completely pointless.

I had some problems with the set too. The palace, while opulent, appears set the most oblivious cliff, not to mention that it’s as far away from its town as one can get. When Snow White does venture into town, there are almost no villages. This is reflected at the Queen’s Wedding Party, her Gala, and even Snow White’s wedding.  This is a kingdom with apparently no people! With Sean Bean (surprise!) as King, you’d think more people would live there!

On the plus side, apart from Lily Collins, everyone else is a great comedic actor. Armie Hammer does a great job as Prince Alcott, and I can believe the relationship between him and Snow. It takes some talent to switch from charming to slapstick comedy, and he pulls it off well. In the same vein, Julia Roberts switches from menacing to flighty to cartoon villain. It’s quite delightful to watch.

While the story is nothing special or overly unique in a Snow White tale, I did like that the characters weren’t stupid. There’s one bit at the very beginning where one of the servants leads Snow to the decision that she has to go visit the town, but that’s about as stupid as it gets, and one can chalk that up to bullying and naiveté. *Spoilers* At the very end of the movie, when the Queen appears with the all-important apple, Snow catches on and hands it back to her, forcing her to eat it. I could have cheered to see her using some common sense when a creepy old woman offers you an apple and tries to force you to eat it right now*End spoilers*

Overall, this was an enjoyable film. While clearly aimed at younger kids, it has laughs for adults too. The kids, especially, will enjoy the silly special effects (I use the term loosely) and the frilly outfits. They won’t notice a slip in the acting, and will try to do Snow’s dance in the weird ending music video.

And, if nothing else, there’s Sean Bean. See it for Sean; you know you want to.

Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

By the BRI (Bathroom Readers’ Institute)

If I know anything for sure, it’s that the above title post caused one of two reactions in you:

  1. If you know about the Bathroom Reader Series: “Awesome!”
  2. If you’ve never heard and/or read the Bathroom Reader Series: “Uncle… John’s… Bathroom… No! Just no.”

But hear me out! (If you’ve never tried these books before). They are awesome. Even better, they’re accessible for all ages, and have offerings for all ages.

The general format of any Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader is an assortment of facts, arranged in 1-5 page lengths. I tend to prefer the general books, but there are other UJBRs that specialize on topics such as music, American history, Canada, and so on. There are collections of quotes, wordplay, riddles, stories about Ancient Rome, mythconceptions… the list goes on.

For the people still looking at me really oddly, each book is quite heavily vetted before it goes to print. That doesn’t mean everything is 100% accurate, but no reference book ever is. And yes, this is a reference book, though I don’t recommend ever trying to add it to your bibliography. If you ever wanted to be the King/Queen of trivia, you need to start investing in these books, because there’s no easier way to read then when it’s interesting.

Which brings me back to kids. I first picked one of these up when I was around the age of 11. I don’t remember why, but I’m glad I did. I am now Trivia Queen of Nova Scotia [no citation available], as well as a proud UNBR addict. These books are a great reading tool, especially if your child loves random facts, or you want to encourage them. They’re great to pick up, read for five minutes, put down, come back. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to read them, because there’s no story, no chapters – nothing to follow plot-wise.

UJBRs have been getting longer and longer over the years. My first one topped out around 300pgs, but now they can be closer to 500 or above. Which is great for me, but terrifying if all you/your kid can see is length. Luckily for us, Uncle John has addressed this problem by producing Uncle John’s Did You Know? Bathroom Reader For Kids Only. I think this was the book I recommended the most at Christmas, because it has something for everyone.

This does not, of course, mean that everyone will like it. Facts just bore some people. But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find it really enjoyable. Don’t be put off by the name – the name is most of the fun! There isn’t even a lot of toilet humour left – they ran out of those jokes about 10 years in.

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