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

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.

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.

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

Archie Comics

Comics are a touchy subject with parents. Kids love them; parents view them as beneath the reading level/intellect of their child.

A word to you, parents: never worry about your child’s reading level, so long as they are reading. I’m not saying don’t push or encourage them, but if they enjoy reading comics, don’t freak out. Comics are still valuable in their own way.

I believe this comic-hatred is a throwback to the parents of the 50s. My father wasn’t allowed comics as a child; one time his parents found a collection he’d borrowed from a friend under his bed and threw them out despite his panicked protests (no word on if the friendship survived that incident). While the standards were relaxed for my sister and I, I do not think my dad loved us reading comics; in his mind we could do better, and we were pushing ourselves enough. Mostly because we looooved Archie comics. Well, I say we but it was mostly me, myself, and I. Every time we went to the grocery store I would grab a new one and beg my parents to buy it for me.

For being the worlds oldest teenager, Archie still speaks well to a young audience. The core five (Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie and Jughead) each represent a general stereotype; you’ll always find someone to associate with.

I couldn’t tell you why I loved these comics so much as a kid. Probably because they were short, sometimes funny, occasionally touching or education. When you’re young, short little tidbits will help hold your attention longer then a well-thought, lush and beautifully executed plot. Sad but true.

When it was new (to me), I don’t think Archie comics set out to be multicultural or educational. It’s largely Caucasian-centric (just look at the main group), with a less then 3 African-American supporting characters (or other nationality). The vocabulary was largely easy-access, and the stories focused on comedy. In recent years, however, Archie Comics has made a change towards consciously inserting a new vocabulary word per book as well as inserting a larger multicultural cast. A good idea, to be sure, but the characters are entirely superfluous; there are so many of them that they cannot be characters on their own.

While each character has a basic personality, there was no consistency from story to story. In one, Veronica can be a rich kid with a heart of gold, willing to share and just wanting to be loved; in another she can be cold and heartless, out to ruin her best friend. Spread this out over several decades of stories (since Archie comics often reprint stories; in recent times I have not seen a single book that has given me entirely new content) and perhaps hundreds of authors, and you understand the inconsistency. It does make it hard for the children to follow, howver.

These comics are a good idea for younger children. Whatever you think about comics, Archie is a great introduction. It can innocently teach your child vocabulary and other important lessons while entertaining them at the same time. Don’t go overboard; try to find them at old fairs or yard sales, since they are expensive. I found that I outgrew them in my teens, but they were still a large and valuable part of my childhood, and certainly contributed to my reading ability later in life.

Suggested for ages 6+

And Tango Makes Three

By Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

I was speaking with a co-worker the other day, and the topic of banned and challenged books came up. She was shocked to learn that not only are books routinely challenged, nor that occasionally a book is actually banned, but that most of these books are children’s books. Parents have this belief that reading a book will automatically put ideas in that child’s head and turn them into a gay/satanic/drug-using/etc. monster. Mostly these challenges are to school library, where they are not protected by a iron-clad collection policy, and it is there that most challenges win.

One of the most challenged books of the last decade is a small children’s book called And Tango Makes Three. Written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, it’s based on real-life events at New York’s Central Park Zoo, between two male penguins named Roy and Silo. In the book and in real life, they formed a pair, built a nest, even nursed an egg-shaped rock. One year, they were given a real egg from another pair, and the two penguins successfully hatched and raised a female chick named Tango.

The story is simple,  the artwork equally simple and effective. There is nothing offensive about this book; it could equally be a book about any form of adoption. If anything, it’s heartwarming, two penguins unable to reproduce getting a chick to raise. If it wasn’t for all the controversy and the fact the two penguins were male, this book would probably be lost in a sea of other children’s literature.

I like books with a message, and this book would certainly be among the books I read to my child. I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with portrayals of the gay community in literature for children – if anything it’s necessary. Parents may want to believe that their children will grow up like them, and in most cases they will. But some won’t, and encouraging them, and letting them know there’s nothing wrong with being different, is important to instill at an early age. To me, there’s nothing worse then alienating your child or forcing them to hide because you never told them it was okay to be different.

Targeted for ages 3-5, I recommend reading this book, with or without your child. Read it, then make a decision if you think it should be banned. The worst thing about banned books is the lemming effect it seems to have – one person complains about the subject matter, and everyone joins in without even having laid eyes on the book. Don’t let this be you – be informed, and give challenged books a chance.

Dear As Salt

By Rafe Martin

When my sister found out I was doing this blog, she demanded that I do this book. She wasn’t even aware of the title I had chosen at that point (I wish I had seen her expression when she first saw it. Alas, she lives in Alberta, so I am out of luck). So today, I shall tackle the inspiration for my blog and review Dear As Salt.

One day, a melancholy King decides to find out how much his daughters’ love him. He calls each of his three daughters before him, and pretends to be very angry, accusing each of not loving him enough. The first two daughters answer that they love him “as much as bread” and “as much as wine”, and the King is please. But when his youngest (Zizola) comes before him, she answers that he is “as dear as salt” to her. Viewing this as an insult, the king flies into a rage and orders her killed. Rolling her eyes, Zizola’s mother hides her daughter in a giant chicken-shaped candlestick and orders one of her servants to take it to the market and sell it to a decent man. A prince comes along, makes some nice (if unrealistic) remarks about how he would use the candle to give people comfort, and ends up with a giant, black, chicken-shaped candlestick with a hidden princess inside.

Dear As Salt is a great book for young girls in the 5-9 age range. It has humour, though the humour is visual, and never once touched on in the text; it’s very subtle, and more for the parents or sharp-eyed child. There are repetitive stanzas within the text to help children memorize the story and keep them engaged. The moral at the end, when the King finally realizes the meaning behind his daughter’s statement that she loved him “as dear as salt”, that she loved him most of all his daughters and he had her executed is quite effective. If it was done in movie form, it would be quite the climactic final scene.

The artwork is gorgeous; the colours are lush and vibrant and a real treat for the eye. It gives the feel of a Renaissance-type painting, with Italian-inspired backgrounds. There is very little white space, and the images beautifully reflect the text. There is a little disconnect between the serious tone of the text and the subtle jokes of the images (see again: giant black chicken-shaped candlestick). This book is a lot of fun for both parents and children to share together.

WALL-E

The movie is set in 2805, where Earth is abandoned to trash and humans have retreated to space. WALL-E, is a lonely robot, until he meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). After innocently showing his new friend a plant, EVE grabs the plant and shuts down, leaving WALL-E to pine over his love. Will he ever finish his directive?

WALL-E has it all. The story is unique and incredibly clever – over half the movie is completed without real dialogue. Yet it’s still engaging for both children and adults. I can’t recommend this movie enough for its touching theme or environmental message.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Morris, J., & Stanton, A. (2008). WALL-E. United States of America: Walt Disney Pictures.

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