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

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.

Tatterhood

By Lauren A. Mills

I love folktales. Love. I’m tempted to say it’s the biggest section on my site. This is for a good reason: they’re archetypal, they can bridge cultures, and they’re reflective of our own culture, or even ourselves. I think we’re drawn to find fairytales that reflect ourselves, and this might explain why I love Tatterhood. The explanation being that I love ugly ducking stories (I still hope that I’ll turn into one), and I adore strong, feisty heroines who stand up for themselves and their loved ones.

Tatterhood has become a born-again favorite. I initially stumbled on it decades ago, and rediscovered it when I was looking up children’s books for my Children’s Services and Resources class (better known as the reason for this blog’s existence). I love it. I love the artwork, which are beautifully done by the author, I love the relationship between the main characters, I love the lesson, and I love the ending.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back. Tatterhood is based on a Norwegian tale. The King and Queen long to have children, but the Queen has been unable to conceive. Taking the advice of an old woman, the Queen gives birth to two girls: the eldest, Tatterhood, and Isabella. Tatterhood carries a wooden spoon, rides a goat, dresses in rags and is generally repugnant. Isabella, by contrast, is beautiful, gentle, graceful and obedient. It is therefore double the tragedy when Isabella’s head is switched with that of a goat as retribution for the Queen’s mistake.

Rather then abandon her sister, Tatterhood demands a ship and sails off to discover a cure for her sister’s malady. They have a grand adventure and Tatterhood is successful in restoring her sister’s head. Ultimately, they land on a foreign land, and she demands to meet the King. He finally comes, sees Isabella and asks her to marry him on the spot. As part of the agreement, his brother has to marry Tatterhood.

I won’t give away the very ending, because it is to me one of the best parts of the story. Go find this book, then come back and read my review; don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The artwork of this story is phenomenal, and I think Mills deserves a lot of credit for her work. The fey design of the characters, the amber saturation, and the attention to detail are incredible. The details are what make it work. The hobgoblin villains, the wildness of Tatterhood, the gentleness of Isabella – it all comes through in the artwork with a life of it’s own.

As it is a retelling, there are of course differences from the original as Mills puts her own spin on the story. The basic elements are all still there, however, for which I am grateful. At the heart it’s still a story of light and dark, but here dark is not bad. It’s different, and ultimately even more lovely. Tatterhood is a lovable character, maligned by her mother despite being the oldest but still loved by her twin. She’s misunderstood, and doesn’t really care what you think. This attitude is amazingly refreshing; Tatterhood is a great role model for those who are different.

This story is sadly obscure, and I’m eternally grateful that my library system owns a copy. If you’re looking for a story with oddities, hobgoblins, strong heroines, donkeys, spoons, and high adventure on the seas, this book has it all, tied up with a pair of fairy tale endings. I highly recommend you check it out.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Something From Nothing

By Phoebe Gilman

Now that Christmas has come and gone, I thought long and hard about what book I should do next. Something about rebirth, maybe, or one that encompasses the spirit of giving without relating to Christmas. And absolutely nothing bad – I want a good, uplifting book. Then at the store I stumbled across the answer, lost in the press of similarly sized children’s books crammed on a too-small shelf. How fortuitous!

Something From Nothing is an old book that I read as a child, but have forgotten as the years have passed. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite stories, and one that might make you hard-pressed not to tear up. It begins with a blanket Joseph is given at birth by his grandfather. As he grows older, the blanket grows rattier, until the mother declares that he should throw it out. Distraught, he takes it to his grandfather, where it’s remade into a coat. Joseph loves the coat, until it’s too small and worn out, and the mother once again declares it should be thrown out. So back to the grandfather, who remakes it as a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, and a button before the boy accidentally loses the button. Distraught, he goes to his grandfather, but is told there is nothing to be done: “you can’t make something from nothing”. At school the next day, Joseph discovers that he has just enough to make a wonderful story.

Based on a Yiddish tale, Something From Nothing is a gorgeous story. The story is simple and rhythmic, somewhat repetitive so children more easily grasp the nature of the story. The artwork is beautiful, full of little Easter eggs in in the panels (just watch and see how much fun your child has examining the minute life of the mice that live under the house and use scraps from his blanket).

If you’re looking for a good story about grandfather-grandchild relations, this is a great one to recommend. In its undertones it’s about family love, values, and how memories are kept long after the physical object has disappeared.

Suggested ages: 3-6

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 4)

By Edith Pattou

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The book is written from five alternating points of view: Rose, Father (Rose’s father), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. Each chapter gives a different point of view, and each takes the tale a little farther forward. At first I found this gimmick off-putting, but as the book progressed I found it helped the pace, keeping me engaged and racing for the end.

East gives us plausible characters, realistic scenarios and reactions, as well as a real and solid world setting. Even differing religions and folktales are given a place in East, which makes the religious studies student in me pleased. It is what I wished Ice had been. Some may find the shifting points of view and size off-putting, since East comes in at roughly 400 pages. The chapters are short, however, and can be picked off slowly. A good book for those that love fleshed-out folktales.

Suggested Ages: 9-12+

Pattou, E. (2005). East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The Three Pigs

By David Wiesner

Almost everything happens in the “white space” of the book, while the story progresses without them. The words are the same, but the illustrations change to reflect the confusion of the wolf. Ignoring their own story, the pigs go exploring other stories, rescuing or being followed by other characters. They decide to go back to their story and re-write the ending as they want it.

The story targets an older audience; one with the ability to understand what’s happening without a lot of text. The gorgeous art easily tells the story, and I recommend it especially as a tool for helping youngsters think outside the box.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Wiesner, D. (2001). The Three Pigs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural

By Patricia McKissack

The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, stories that scared me as a kid and still spook me today. But these are not just ghost stories; they are African-American in theme, and deal with issues of racism, classism, emancipation, and the Klu Klux Klan. One of the most terrifying is the “Tale of the Gingi”, which has remained with me since I first read these in 3rd grade.

The Dark Thirty is an incredibly well-written set of short stories, each with its own feel and voice. Recommended for around grades 4 and up, it is a great book for anytime you need a scary story. It deserves all the awards it has received, and I highly recommend this book to anyone with children who like a fright.

Suggested Ages: 7-12

McKissack, P. (1998). The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. Random House Children’s Books.

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Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

By Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the first of the Percy Jackson series, a set of novels about Percy, a young boy who comes do discover that he is the son of a Greek God and a mortal woman.

The Lightning Thief is a great book for teens. It is simply-written and fast-paced, full of action, gods and myths of yore. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a light, fun read that will appeal to readers of all ages. I would highly suggest this book to kids who enjoy a good action story.

For better or for worse, it reminds me of Harry Potter – a great read that lots of people enjoy, and that appeals to the young, mythologically-saavy crowd.

While it is not the deepest of series, it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be picked up and enjoyed as an action-packed coming-of-age tale.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Riordan, R. (2006). Percy Jackson and the Olymptians: The Lightning Thief. Disney Book Group.

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East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 3)

By Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to part 3! Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.

The main protagonist is Cassie, who has been basically raised in the research station, where her father tags and researches polar bears. On her birthday, Cassie is paid a visit by a polar bear, and told that she was promised to him as a bride. Spirited away, she tries to make a new life as the bride of a bear.

This book contains a lot of new elements, as one must to flesh a children’s book to a full-sized novel. Bear is not a cursed prince but a magical being in his own right. The trolls have been changed; they are now a race of gelatinous, ever-changing, ethereal beings who want to live but do not know how.

The book started off strong, but ended with a whimper, leaving me disappointed. Read for the good ideas, but be warned it will likely leave you scratching your head.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Durst, S. B. (2009). Ice. Margaret K. McElderry Books

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