The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

“‘The elephant,’ said the fortuneteller.

‘What?’ Peter said.  He opened his eyes, certain that he had misunderstood.

‘You must follow the elephant,’ said the fortuneteller. ‘She will lead you there.’

Peter’s heart, which had risen up high inside of him, now sank slowly back to its normal resting place.  He put his hat on his head.  ‘You are having fun with me,’ he said.  ‘There are no elephants here.’

‘Just as you say,’ said the fortuneteller.

‘That is surely the truth, at least for now. But perhaps you have not noticed: the truth is forever changing.’

Before the coldest of the grayest winters the city has ever seen, Peter approaches the mysterious fortuneteller with trepidation.  He knows he is an orphan, but…but he remembers a baby crying, a sister.  Is she still alive, he wants to know?  If she is, how can he find her?

The fortuneteller’s answer seems unbelievable: where would Peter find an elephant, anyway? However, with the scrap of hope and a fortuneteller’s cryptic message, Peter embarks on an adventure that will not only change an entire city, but also bring him the family he longs for.

I was a terrifically anxious child. We’re talking escaping-from-kindergarten-on-foot-to-avoid-standardized-testing, elaborate-separation-rituals-including-begging-and-possibly-vomiting, germ-phobic-before-hand-sanitizer-was-a-thing kind of nervous.  It wasn’t pretty, friends, and the calmest moments of my childhood were when my parents or teachers read out loud to me.  For that reason, I am on a perpetual quest for The Perfect Sharing Read-Alouds: those books that are interesting to both adults and little ones, with the stories full of things to prepare you to face the world. Since they are bedtime books, a soothing quality is important.  Funny is definitely a plus.  Illustrations? Absolutely.

I’m pleased to tell you that The Magician’s Elephant is possibly one of the most perfect books for sharing.  A fortuneteller whose tent appears one day and is gone the next? A long-lost sister? An orphanage whose door is always guarded by a nun, waiting to welcome all that are lost? A magician who has just accomplished the most stunning bit of magic of his life?  A bewildered elephant?! Yes, oh yes.  And while the plot elements and characters are creative and wonderful in themselves, the illustrations and tone combine to form a story about love and families and bravery that will break your heart, it’s so pretty.

The author, Kate DiCamillo, says this about her book: “I wanted. I needed. I longed to tell a story of love and magic.  Peter, Adele, the magician, the elephant-all the characters in this book are the result of that longing.  I hope that you, the reader, find some love and magic here.” I did! I think you will, too.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.katedicamillo.com

DiCamillo, Kate. The Magician’s Elephant. Candlewick: Somerville, 2009. 201 pp. Ages 8 and up.

Would you like to know what other books are on my Sharing List?

The Hobbit

Toys Go Out

The Neverending Story

The Adventures of Hugo Cabret 

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Phantom Tollbooth

I’d love to hear your suggestions!  What books are you sharing?

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Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

“Every fairy tale, it seems, concludes with the bland phrase ‘happily ever after’. Yet every couple I’ve ever known would agree that nothing about marriage is forever happy.  There are moments of bliss, to be sure, and lengthy spans of satisfied companionship.  Yet these come at no small effort, and the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight.”

Ben’s parents were assassinated and she ends up as a charge of Queen Sophia, who is determined to shape Ben into the image of proper royalty.  This means diets, dancing, needlework, and genteel conversation, and Ben wants none of it.  As a result of her truculence, Ben is relegated to a locked tower.  Rather than give in to despair or decide to comply meekly,  she begins teaching herself magic.  At night, she practices her craft, trying to gain enough skill to escape.  Her secret lessons are put into use when the kingdom is threatened by a neighboring country, and the fate of the nation rests on her knowledge and skills.

I am constantly searching for fairy tale retellings that do not favor beauty over character, and uphold marriage as the ultimate goal for young women, and I’ve finally found one!  Ben is overweight, though the descriptions of her body are neutral, rather than shaming, and her body never approaches the stereotypical ideal throughout the course of the novel.  (I am always heartbroken when authors begin with a character who is not traditionally beautiful, but she transforms during the story, leaving us with the ultimate message that being conventionally pretty is still necessary for a happy life.)  Even though Ben is taken captive and spends two months as a prisoner of war on a starvation diet, she never becomes slender; I like this nod to the idea of a set weight point for each body, and the acknowledgment that diets do not work.  (Did you know that only five percent of all dieters are able to keep the weight off permanently?  But if businesses can use advertisements to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, they will still spend lots of money on diet products, even if 95 percent of them will not be able to lose weight long-term.)

Furthermore, Ben discusses her marriage with the most straightforward feminist speech that I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and I am so grateful to the author for it!  This book is a treasure: it strikes the right balance of magical fairy tale elements, well-rounded characters, and creative plotting, and the message it sends about beauty and self-reliance is refreshing.  Look for dragons, political intrigue, a hilarious commentary on the odiferous nature of adventures, and a reversal of the kiss-the-unconscious-princess-and-love-will-wake-her-up trope. Though Ben does seem overwhelmingly, unilaterally grumpy and spoiled in the first sections of the book, she develops into a multifaceted, realistic character in the second half of the book, and it’s worth pushing through the crankiness.  Final awesome thing?  The full title of the book: Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherinemurdock.com/cm/home.html

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Princess Ben. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008. 344 pp. Ages 14-18.

If you liked this book, I think you’d love the graphic novel Castle Waiting, for the strong feminist message.  If graphic novels aren’t your thing, though, you would probably like Beauty, Fairest, Everor Ella Enchanted. There are so many good books out there for readers who love fairy tales, but are disheartened by the beauty myth present in so often in them!

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!

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

Image

“I’m Lady Jain Solander, Countess of Carabas. I’ve journeyed many months, hoping to gain sanctuary at the legendary Castle Waiting.”

This is Sleeping Beauty like you’ve never heard it before. The king and queen are just, generous rulers, but have no child.  When the long-awaited baby is welcomed into the world, a vengeful witch places her under the familiar curse.  Thus begins the story of Brambly Hedge.  However, it is what happens after the curse that makes this graphic novel special.

After the princess is awakened, and runs off with the prince, we get another “Once upon a time”.  This section of the story involves a convent of bearded nuns, mischievous imps, a castle that stands as a refuge for all that might require it, a despot ruling over the local mill, and a lot of gumption on the part of the characters.  Oh, yeah-and a library and a whole barnful of puppies. See, after the Sleeping Beauty part, Sonorus (the town) fades away; businesses move out of the region until all that’s left are the mill and the castle, which has become a self-sufficient refuge, rather like a commune.  The story centers around a pregnant woman, running away from a mysterious past.  (Don’t worry, you’ll learn about that bit later).  She flees to the castle, and when she gets there, all of the inhabitants reveal, slowly, their back stories.

Friends, I’ve found it.  A graphic novel fairy-tale retelling with a feminist perspective. The Magical Trinity of ImageBook-Awesomeness-here it is!  Don’t tell my professors, but I read this right in class, with the book crammed under my laptop.  It’s that good!  This is the kind of book I’d like to save, to pass off to my children, if I ever have any.  It retains all of the magical fairy-tale storytelling, but Medley empowers her characters (all of them, not just the ladies), and emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance and bravery, without being didactic.  I love the creativity in the book, too: all too often, it seems like fairy tale retellings stick too closely with what has already been written.  Better still, this is a series! I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one in line.

Happy Reading!

Medley, Linda. Castle Waiting, Vol. I. Lake City Way, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006. 452 pp. (Don’t be scared about that-it’s a graphic novel! I finished it in two days!) Ages 13-18.

Publisher’s website.  (If anyone has a link to Linda Medley’s site, I would be so grateful!)

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

“In the  storybooks she’d read in school, everyone got to wake up at the prince’s kiss.  But in Gemma’s version, the implication was that they all still slept under the wicked fairy’s sentence of death.  Death by sleep.”

Becca’s grandmother, Gemma, has been telling her the same version of Sleeping Beauty since she was a toddler.  In the nursing home, before her death, she claims “I was the princess”, struggling against the restraints that keep her from wandering and insisting that her old story was true.  “I am Briar Rose,” she repeats.  “”I was the princess in the castle in the sleeping woods.”  Becca’s siblings write it off as senility, the last tethers of her mind loosening with the combined stresses of age and loss.

Becca isn’t so sure, though. After Gemma dies, a mysterious box is unearthed, full of documents: newspaper clippings, birth certificates for her daughters, faded photographs, and a visa.  The visa is cryptic: the town of origin has been marked through, and other details have also been obscured.  It’s as if Gemma does not want to think about her life before immigrating to the United States.  But why?

Becca partners up with her coworker (and love interest),  Stan, to begin the investigation.  After narrowing down the Gemma’s city of origin to a couple of possibilities, Becca heads to Poland to learn more about Gemma’s story.  She carefully teases away layers of Gemma’s tale of the sleeping princess and the castle, and unearths the true story of the Nazi persecution of the Polish Jews, gays, and other marginalized groups during the Holocaust.  Gemma’s castle was actually Chelmno, a concentration camp that only a handful of people-three men and a woman-ever escaped from.  What ensues is a tale of hatred, hardship, and human resilience.  Really, I know.  The Holocaust was such  a shattering event that we have book upon book written over it, but this is a very unique take, and absolutely worth a look.

Not only do I adore Yolen’s integration of the Holocaust with the traditional tale of Sleeping Beauty, I also love the format of this book.  It is divided into two sections: Home and Castle.  Home is Becca’s life in the U.S., and Castle is when she is in Poland.  Furthermore,  every other chapter is Gemma’s fairy tale, told in her own words.  It’s italicized so you never have any question about who is talking.  The other chapters relate Becca’s current experiences.  It’s nontraditional, but well handled.  Combined with Yolen’s innovative handling of the horrors of the Holocaust and how she weaves it with Briar Rose.

This is another gem from Yolen, a recipient of the Mythopoeic Award, for a book that best exemplifies “the spirit of the Inklings”.  I love that it focuses on homosexuality during this time period.  Yolen handles it sensitively and beautifully.  If you’re like me, and obsessed with fairy tale retellings, this is certainly one of the best ones I’ve read.  Another bonus?  Yolen writes in a shout-out to my absolute favorite book, Robin McKinley’s Beauty. 

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://janeyolen.com/

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1992.  241 pp.

A note about the age: this book is recommended for readers 13 and up, but Becca (the protagonist) is actually a woman in her early twenties.  That may have been a plot device enabling Becca to go explore Poland on her own, but to a 13-year old, she may be a bit tricky to relate to.

Huntress by Malinda Lo

“The whole situation should be terrifying, but she felt a helpless surrender to it.  Here she was on this journey to a place that didn’t exist on their maps, and all around unseen things seemed to stare out at them day and night.  But there, not two feet away from her, was a girl who made her feel light-headed.”

Here’s the brand new Malinda Lo book, fresh off the press just this April!  I saw it at the library yesterday and spent all my spare seconds reading it.  Not that it was hard–I definitely didn’t want to put it down.  I feel like Malinda Lo really exceeded all of my expectations when it came to this book.  Even though it’s her second book, it’s set a few centuries before Ash, in the same land.

Here’s the story:  the Kingdom is in trouble.  The sun has faded to a nondescript gray, crops are failing, and people are starving.  Those worst off are beginning to revolt.  At the Academy, the leaders cast the stones of the Oracle.  Two seventeen-year-old girls, Kaede and Taisin, are chosen to undertake the perilous journey to the city of the Fairy Queen.  No one is sure what danger waits ahead, or even exactly where to go: some of the maps haven’t been updated in decades, back when the fairies and the humans had much more contact with each other.  So, with several escorts, the girls make their way over miles of terrain, facing cold, fear, wolves, a horrifying changeling baby, and worse.  As they travel together, the girls grow closer, and end up falling in love.

All right, I have to apologize.  My description of the plot is so, so lame compared to the actual story.  That’s why Malinda Lo is out there writing incredible adventure stories, and I’m just  here on this little blog, telling everyone how awesome she is.

Because, you know what?  She is awesome.  I want to live in her world, where there is no hate or homophobia and falling in love is just falling in love.  She makes a safe space for us, and I so appreciate it.  Many GLBT books deal with hatred, homophobia, social relationships, family tensions and bullying…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  However, in Lo’s world, there has been a paradigm shift, far away from all of that.  It’s just normal.  Some people are gay and some people are straight, and there’s really no discussion about it.

Here’s what she has to say about the world she creates:

“The difference is: in the world of my novels, being gay doesn’t matter.

What that means is that the characters are able to fall in love without dealing with homophobia. They don’t have to come out, because sexual orientation is never assumed in their worlds, and falling in love with someone of the same sex is seen as perfectly natural.”

Beautiful.

Besides all of that lovely business, the adventure is tight: no wasted words, no irrelevant plot detours, just pure action and excitement.  Halfway through the book, I started panicking that it was going to end.  It’s not a tired account of the same old symbols, either: Lo mixes in the I Ching, fairy tale elements, and an ice fortress that reminded me of a fantastic Celtic folk tale I read one time.  I can’t wait for her to write something else!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:  http://www.malindalo.com/

Lo, Malinda. Huntress. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2011. 371 pp.  Ages16 and up.

If you liked this book (and you’ve already read The Hobbit, which it partly reminded me of), you should try her first book, Ash.  If you’ve already read them both, and are looking for more fantasy, I really like the author Robin McKinley.  However, if you’re searching for more GLBT fantasy, I am actually not sure what else is out there.  If anyone knows of something along those lines, please share!

Ash by Malinda Lo

This is a new author who has written a beautiful take on the Cinderella story, with a twist.

Ash’s mother is dead, and, following in the tradition of almost all Disney movies, epic poems, and fairy tales, her father dies soon after.  She’s left at the mercy of her stepmother, forced to clean and look after her stepsisters: all events that closely follow the original Cinderella.  Ash absorbs herself in a single book of fairy tales her mother bequeathed her, and spends all her time searching the woods for a fairy troupe that is rumored to connect people with their dead loved ones.

Wait, the good part’s coming: Ash soon becomes torn between the fairy Sidhean and his dark promises to reunite her with her mother, and Kaisa, the Queen’s Huntress.  When Kaisa and Ash meet in the woods one day, something within Ash changes.  Ash and and Kaisa fall in love in a natural and charming way.  However, Ash still must reckon with Sidhean and his claim on her.

Ash’s world:

Fans of fairy tales will enjoy the book.  I was not necessarily a fan of the unwieldy triangulated relationship between Ash, Kaisa and Sidhean, but I really loved the dark, slightly creepy, slightly sad feeling to the book.

If you’re looking for a light fantasy read, try it out.

Lo, Malinda. Ash. Little & Brown: New York, 2009. 272 pp. ISBN: 0316040096

The Neverending Story

“You see, it’s called the House of Change not only because it changes itself but also because it changes anyone who lives in it.  And that was very important to the little boy, because up until then he had always wanted to be someone other than he was, but he didn’t want to change.”

As long as we’re on the childhood nostalgia trip, I think it’s time to pay homage to one of the best children’s books of all times: Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story.

I’m sure many of you know the story from childhood:  Bastian, a pale, chubby, and lonely child escapes from bullies by running into a bookstore.  There, he meets the owner, a curmudgeon who has been reading a book titled The Neverending Story. Without really knowing why, Bastian steals the book, ferrets it away to the attic of his school, and sits in the dust and the gloom for hours, entranced by the story.  Enter the epic adventure: luckdragons, quests, riddles and the Childlike Empress.  Bastian reads that a fearsome Nothing is spreading through the land of Fantastica, eating away great patches of the country and sucking inhabitants into the abyss. The hero Atreyu is summoned by the Empress on a quest: he is to discover the source of the Nothingness and save the Childlike Empress, and he must hurry, lest Fantastica disappear forever.

Atreyu wanders far, meeting unforgettable characters like Morla the Aged One, gnomes, oracles, and the beloved luckdragon, Falkor.  It soon becomes apparent that the only thing that can save Fantastica is a human child, who must cross worlds and use his memories and imagination to restore health to the country.  Here’s where Bastian comes in:  the awkward boy in the attic is must cross into the book and save Fantastica, and at the same time, battle insecurities of his own.

If you watched the movie a thousand times as a child, the book is so much better, and you’ll be immersed in a surprisingly moving story.  I read it one precious chapter a day, because I didn’t want it to be over too quickly.  I was surprised how emotional poor Bastian’s situation made me-I identified with him and his clumsy awkwardness and his desire to be something different. I think it’s something every child can relate to-after all, who doesn’t love the idea of endless wishes and books that you can enter?- and in the fashion of The Little Prince, is actually more meaningful to adult readers. Everyone can relate to it on some level.

This is really just a beautiful story.  Did I mention the illuminated pages?  Each chapter begins with a rich, detailed picture, in the illuminated style of old manuscripts.  Gorgeous! 

Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Doubleday, 1983. 377 pp.