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)

 

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

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

The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg

Everyone has their favorite Christmas books. You know which ones I mean – the ones you haul out year after year and read to your children, or your siblings. From the time I could tolerably trip my way through our version of A Night Before Christmas I was reading it to my sister, thus sparking a new tradition: Christmas Eve Fight Night. (No, I kid – I knew Santa was watching and was always very, very good the night before).

One of our favorites, and perennial classic to children everywhere, is The Polar Express. No, not the movie (I’ll get to it later), but the book. I love the book. The illustrations are beautiful, incredibly rendered in gentle colours. They feel soft, in a way; looking at them makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading a Christmas book.

The story is the one we all wish we could take part in if this story were real. An unnamed young man, going to sleep on Christmas Eve, awakens to hear the call of a train whistle outside his house. Running downstairs, he is greeted by the conductor and told that “this is the Polar Express”. Initially reluctant, the boy climbs on, and is ushered in to a lively, magical train.

The Polar Express makes its way north, eventually coming to a stop at the North Pole, where Santa will give out the first gift of Christmas. He chooses the boy, who requests to have a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Santa grants this wish and gives him the bell, but on the subsequent trip home, the boy realizes there was a rip in his pocket at that he has lost the bell. Dismayed at the loss, he finds a package under his tree the next morning with the bell and a note from Santa.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

I’m going to say it again: I love this book. The illustrations are to die for, beautifully rendered and perfectly conveying the feeling of magic and Christmas. The story is simple, provoking children to reaffirm their belief in Santa Claus and Christmas. After all, if you believe, you too might end up on the Polar Express and receive a gift from Santa.

Suggested Ages: 3+

The Last Dragonslayer

By Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer is set in an alternative-reality where most of the familiar things – companies, telephones, roads, cars and all the other things we take for granted – intermingle with dying magic. Jennifer Strange is a foundling (orphan), who is currently in charge of a magical employment agency that works to find a new field of work for obsolete magicians: home improvement. Everything is turned upside down, however, with the announcement of the impending death of the last dragon.

Fforde handles The Last Dragonslayer with his trademark British wit. It does lack some subtly in its break-neck pace. There are themes of environmentalism, evil corporations, don’t-trust-strangers, capitalism, and necessary evil. Given that this is a book for children, I can forgive the heavy-handedness, and really it can be easily overlooked.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Fforde, J. (2011). The Last Dragonslayer. HarperCollins.

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