Beauty by Robin McKinley

“He made a noise somewhere between a roar and a bark, and after an anxious minute, I decided it was probably a laugh. ‘You do not believe  then?’ he inquired.

‘Well-no’ I said, hesitantly, wondering if this might anger him. ‘Any number of mirrors have told me otherwise.’

‘You will find no mirrors here,’ he said, ‘for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds.  And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?'”

Hi, friends!  I promise I didn’t forget you.  It’s just that, when you’re in library school, and reading books about cataloging and coding and reference materials, it sucks all of the time away for reading things you actually want to read.  It seems a little unfair-after all, I went away to school because all I want to do is share books with others, and school gets in the way, big-time, of all that sharing.  So, I’m really sorry.  And I have a stack of good books to tell you about, ok? Actually, this one is on my list of Extra Super Favorites, and has been since I was a teenager myself.  Here’s the story:

Beauty is the self-appointed black sheep of the family.  Awkward and broken-out, she is embarrassed by her nickname and feels ungainly in comparison to her beautiful older sisters.  She takes refuge in reading, riding her horse, and offering pragmatic advice to her sisters. Life isn’t unpleasant for the girls.  However, when her father’s sailing fleet is lost at sea, and the family’s fortune with it, they are forced to leave their city home for the distant country.  Their new home is backed by a forest, eerily empty of wildlife, and the townspeople still pass around rumors of magic…or at least something being “not quite right”.  It is said that once you lose sight of the borders of the forest, it is impossible to find your way home again.

On the way home from a trip to the city, Beauty’s father is lost in a blizzard.  Snow-blinded, he stumbles into the forest and wanders for hours, eventually coming upon a castle.  There, his horse is tended to, and he is provided with food and dry clothing, but his host is mysteriously absent.  When leaving, he picks a single rose-Beauty’s only request for a gift from the city-and is confronted by an enormous, dark beast.  The beast demands either his life, or that he surrender one of his daughters, who must then go and live at the castle.  He gives the man leave to go home to his family and make a decision.  After some deliberation and many protests on the part of her family, Beauty volunteers to go in her father’s place.  And then, you know the story.  The beast, the castle, the magic.  It’s all here, and the parts that have been changed have been changed for the better.

All right, I confess.  I have an obsession-bordering on devotion-with the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.  I’ve read so, so many retellings, and here, friends: I give you the very best one.  Here’s why:  Robin McKinley’s writing is superb.  The story is lush and dark, just like a fairy tale should be.  Furthermore, nothing breaks my heart more than when Beauty magically transforms into a gorgeous princess at the end of the story, or worse, she is preternaturally beautiful from birth and there is no discussion of her personality at all.  I can’t give the ending away, but in this story, Beauty is not beautiful.  (I apologize for the cover of the paperback.  I wanted to show you, so that if you saw it in the library or the bookstore, you’d recognize it, but the girl on the cover doesn’t resemble the Beauty in the book).  Instead, the readers (and the Beast) love her for the merits of her character: her quick wit, love for reading, and practical nature.  She’s strong, capable, and independent.  Coupled with a retelling that retains the spirit of the original, but doesn’t just parrot it back to readers, this book is so lovely.  I’ve read it more times than I can count.  And the quote I gave you at the beginning?  I’m pretty sure I’ve had it memorized since I was fifteen.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

If you liked this one, you might want to try Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, or Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy.  They are stellar!

McKinley, Robin.  Beauty. Harper & Row: New York, 1978. 247 pp.  Ages 14-18.

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