The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

“‘What do you have, then?’ I asked.

‘Oh, spindles and straw and beans and tears.  A glass coffin. A golden egg.  A number of things.  The Grimms were serious and thorough collectors, and of course we’ve added to the collection a great deal over the years, objects associated with other fairy tale and folklore traditions.  I’m especially proud of our French holdings-we have the best collection outside the Archives Extraordinaires in Paris.'”

Elizabeth has a new job as a page at the New York Circulating Materials Repository.  It may sounds stuffy, but it is far from it! The Repository is a very special lending library for objects of all kinds, including magical ones collected by the Brothers Grimm.  Patrons can visit and borrow anything from chess sets and egg cups to magical table settings that offer never-ending food and the slippers of the Twelve Dancing Princesses (though, I don’t know why they’d be useful, as the soles are all worn through).   For the most part, Elizabeth’s  job is straightforward-she puts items in their proper places and helps patrons find what they need.  However, when a coworker begins acting suspiciously, and magical objects are being replaced with clever fakes, Elizabeth decides to act, in order to protect the collection.  She’s not sure whom she can trust, but she knows she has to do something to solve the mystery and prevent the Grimm treasures from being lost forever.

I’ll admit it-I’m terribly jealous of Elizabeth’s job! Not only does she get to do things like speaking to the magic mirror of Snow White, she even earns borrowing privileges for the Grimm Collection.  Wouldn’t you love to take home a mermaid comb or try out some seven-league boots?  The descriptions of the magical objects were the best part of this book; I even learned about fairy tales I’d never heard of before (the Spirit in the Bottle, anyone?).  The library sounds like my idea of paradise; there’s even a special science fiction object collection, and a magical indoor forest.  The plot is original, and the details won’t disappoint you.

I waited a long time to review it, though; there were just a few things that concerned me about this otherwise lovely book.  First, a positive: there is a very diverse cast of characters in this text.  Elizabeth’s friend Marc is black, and her other friend, Anjali, is Indian.  While I dearly, passionately love to see racial diversity in young adult literature, there was something about the way the characters were presented that made me feel uncomfortable.  On the one hand, it was refreshing to see a cast of characters that wasn’t all white.  On the other hand, the repeated mentions to characters’ races made the text seem as though it was too conscious of its own diversity-at times, I felt like I was unable to focus on the story, or see the characters as having other qualities outside of their ethnicity.  Sometimes, the text seemed to be exoticizing Marc and Anjali; Marc turns out to be an African prince, while Anjali is an Indian princess, and there is a lot of focus on the maxims of Marc’s tribe, for example, and Anjali’s exotic beauty.  When a story presents “outsiders”, or characters from another culture, but does so in a way that draws a lot of attention to the differentness of those characters, it can be patronizing.   Furthermore, I felt that Marc’s characterization was stereotypical; he was a basketball star, which isn’t negative in itself, but I would like to see authors presenting us with images of young black men involved in other activities besides sports.

With that said, I do not think this is an intentionally prejudiced book.  I only wanted to draw attention to the way race was treated in the story.  When you’re reading, you can start thinking about how minority characters are described: are the characters well-rounded, rather than being flat or reduced only to their race?  Do descriptions of the character seem to align with common stereotypes, or is he or she treated as an individual?  The way race, gender, and any other identity categories are presented in the media can contribute to stereotypes, and that’s why I felt I had to bring it up.  If every African American character we read about is a basketball player, it limits our perceptions of them -what about African American chemists?    Is it awesome that Shulman had such diverse characters?  Absolutely!  However, if we are moving to an ultimate goal of eradicating prejudice, it would have been more effective to have a diverse cast without dwelling on their respective differences and how exotic and interesting they are because of their ethnicity.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:pollyshulman.com

Shulman, Polly. The Grimm Legacy. Puffin: New York, 2010. 325 pp.  Ages 11-15

This is a creative story with skillful fairy tale references and creative details.  If you’d like more on fairy tales, try A Tale Dark and Grimm.  You could also try any of the books by these authors: Eva Ibbotson, Shannon Hale, and Gail Carson Levine! Here’s a nice list of good books in the genre from Goodreads, too.  This is one of my favorite genres and I’m always hunting for more like this, so I’ll keep you posted!

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