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!

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Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

“Rules and Things Number 29: When You Wake Up and Don’t Know for Sure Where You’re At and There’s a Bunch of People Standing Around You, It’s Best to Pretend You’re Still Asleep Until You Can Figure Out What’s Going On and What You Should Do”

Bud (not Buddy, never Buddy) is an orphan, or so he thinks.  His mom died, and she never talked about his dad.  In the middle of the Great Depression, life isn’t easy for anyone, much less for orphans.  When Bud’s prank gets him in trouble at the group home, and he get sent back to the orphanage, he decides it’s best for him to set out on his own.  He tries his hand at train-hopping, eats out of a can in a hobo camp, and is tricked by a mustard sandwich into accepting a car ride that will change his life forever.  See, he’s trying to find the legendary bandleader, H. E. Calloway, the man he believes to be his father, and all he knows is that he has to get to Grand Rapids.  After that, he figures, things will work themselves out.

This book has been on my to-read list since a classmate gave a book talk on it last year, and I’m so pleased to finally have read it.  It’s hilarious! You wouldn’t think that the plight of an orphan runaway during the Great Depression would allow for much levity, but Bud’s constant inner narrative is insightful and droll.  My favorite was his long list of  “Rules and Things”, which are all quite true, and you’ll be happy to read things that you’ve thought, but never been brave enough to say.  Honestly, in setting and resolution, it reminded me of Wonderstruck, which was a really pleasant surprise for me; it would be nice to read these two books right after one another.

This book is written for upper elementary and middle schoolers; it is a quick, funny read with substance.  I enjoyed it a lot!  I think it would be a great read-aloud classroom book: interesting to both male and female students, and set in a historical time period that would be fun to study.

Happy Reading!

Website: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/christopherpaulcurtis

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. Random House: New York, 1999. 243 pp.

If you like this, please, please try Wonderstruck!

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

“You aren’t allowed out of the graveyard…because it’s only in the graveyard that we can keep you safe.  This is where you live and this is where those who love you can be found.  Outside would not be safe for you.  Not yet.”

In the dark of night, a man named Jack waits in the shadows and efficiently kills an entire family–all but the toddler, who had crept out of his crib during the night.  The man desperately needs to kill the toddler; his fate rests on the death of the boy.  However, the little one wanders away into the night, and into a nearby graveyard.  When the spirits of his parents cry out to the ghosts of the cemetery and beg for them to protect him, they accept.  Thus, Nobody Owens becomes a ward of the graveyard.

He’s raised by ghosts and learns their ways, including feats like Dreamwalking and Fading.  They bring him books and food from the outside world, and warn him (just like normal parents) not to talk to people he doesn’t know.  See, the man who killed his family is still alive and hunting for him.  He’s only safe within the confines of the graveyard.

The story proceeds in episodes; each one can stand alone as a great short story, but they can also be woven together into a captivating narrative.  While reading it, I kept thinking that the tone of the book reminded me a little of Eva Ibbotson, with a playful eye towards subjects like witchcraft, and a little like Audrey Niffenegger, with her stories about crumbly, mossy graveyards.  It’s a really distinct voice; a little dry humor mixed with some elements of the underworld.  Love it, love it! I can’t wait to share this book.

I learned that Gaiman was inspired by his own son, as he pedaled his tricycle around the cemetery.  He said he started writing chapter four, and that the rest of the story took almost a decade to be born.  I really think born is the right word here, too, because while you’re reading, you are coming across all of these sort of unrelated-seeming tales, and then they all wind together into this perfect ending.  When you get to the ending, you see how everything was leading perfectly to the conclusion, and it seems so holistic and perfectly formed.

Oh, and pictures! Did I mention the illustrations?  The book is interspersed with the black and white illustrations of Dave McKean.  It’s a touch that reminds me of the Harry Potter books, a nice surprise waiting for you between the pages.  Everything combines into something really special, which is why it’s not surprising that this book won the super trio of a Newbery and Carnegie medal, plus a Hugo award.

Happy Reading!

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

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  307 pp. Grades 6-9.

I mentioned them in the post, but if you like this book (and you’re a fan of books for middle schoolers), try any of Eva Ibbotson’s stories, such as Which Witch or Island of the Aunts.  They’re fun, have an irreverent and light tone to them that’s similar to this one.  For adults, try Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I read that book before I started blogging, but it’s a ghost story about twin girls in a haunted flat in London.