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

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

Giant Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat

By Robert Munsch

I was raised in a secular household, went to a Catholic high school, and studied religious studies in school. For all of that, I feel I fall on a balance; I don’t consider myself religious, but I have a lot of academic knowledge. But for all of that, sometimes obvious things go completely over my head.

Take Giant: Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat. I loved this book as a child. I have literally read it to pieces, but we still have it. It’s an oversized picture book, set in Ireland, where the giant McKeon is upset that St. Patrick is driving out all the elves, snakes, and giant and replacing them with church bells. In retaliation, McKeon throws every church bell he can find into the ocean. The fighting escalates, with St. Patrick telling McKeon to complain to God. God, of course, comes on the Thursday boat, so McKeon sits down to wait. The first boat that arrives is a small craft, manned by a little girl. McKeon decides she can’t be God, and she sits with him as he waits. Other ships come in, bearing much grander occupants, but none of them turn out to be God.

Sick of waiting, McKeon takes the little girl, leaping up into Heaven. The fighting between McKeon and St. Patrick continues, and they try to find God to set their issues to rest. It turns out the little girl is God, and inside her house there is more then enough room for giants, elves, snakes, saints, and church bells.

I did not know that this book was at all challenged until very recently. Heck, for years I don’t believe I ever caught on that the little girl was God. In no way does this take away from the message, though; in the end, Munsch creates a beautiful story of acceptance and forgiveness.

(As an aside, I do think McKeon got the lesser end of the deal, since, as the last giant in Ireland, his departure means that there are no more giants, elves, or snakes. Well played, God)

My silly thoughts aside, I love books like this, that encourage children to think, and play with their perceptions on the world. The downside comes, of course, when parents overreact and try to have a book yanked from the shelves. I’ve commented on this before, and won’t again; read the post instead. I’m afraid I’ve almost become jaded on how overprotective parents are at books that offer very little threat. So, while this controversy surprised me, I thought I understood. Of course parents might be offended about the depictions of religious figures in Munsch’s book.

But I was wrong.

The controversy was not, as I thought, about how God was portrayed. If you had asked me, parents would have complained that God was a child, or a girl, or black. But no, the controversy was because McKeon threatened to “pound God into applesauce”.

I can sympathize with parents, I really can. The world is scary, and you worry that anything can influence your children. Seeing what was written in the days before political correctness (like the use of blackface minstrels in Little House on the Prairie), I can’t say I blame them for sometimes overreacting. But sometimes the controversies make me laugh, or at the very least shake my head. On my part, I like to focus on the good things about Giant. For one thing, the artwork does a great job of making McKeon larger-then-life, while making the girl small. The artwork works well with the text, each balanced by the other. On a deeper level, I love how Munsch plays with how God appears, and her role as the last person you would expect to be God. We need more books like this, ones that challenge the parents as much as the still-malleable perceptions of children.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

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.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

To see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief here.

Percy Jackson returns in his second book, The Lightning Thief. Another quest, a new family member, and the return of old favorites.

Trouble is brewing in Camp Half-Blood again. The tree that keeps the Camp safe, Thalia’s tree, has been poisoned, and the camp activities direction, Chiron, has been accused of this travesty and been fired. Amongst all this, Percy is having dreams of his friend Grover, dreams that include conversations. Realizing they’re real, Annabeth and Percy realize that Grover has found the Golden Fleece, which can be used to heal Thalia’s tree. Requesting that someone be sent to find the Golden Fleece (and Grover), the new activities direction elects to send Ares’ daughter, Clarice, rather than Percy and co. Not about to be left behind, Percy, his half-brother Tyson and friend Annabeth to help their fallen friend.

If you enjoyed The Lightning Thief, you’ll love The Sea of Monsters. It has all the same trademarks of humour, wit, mythology, and action. Sea of Monsters is a fast-paced adventure, with a deadline (the demise of a tree), a recurring villain (Luke and Kronos), traps, interfering Gods, and tribute to various Greek gods, demigods, titans and monsters.

For children roughly 9-12, this is a great book for boys. If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll understand that it can be hard to find books for boys; when you find one, hold onto it and make sure they read it all. The Percy Jackson is great because it targets all the things boys enjoy which still being accessible and enjoyable for girls. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m going to throw in a quick recommendation to look up Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid). They are similar to the Percy Jackson books, only they focus on Egyptian mythology and feature a brother-sister team.

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

More

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.

More

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.

More

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.

More

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

More

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: