Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

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“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!)

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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.