January 15, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Dark and Inventive: New Retellings of Familiar Tales | Fall Fantasy 2017

 

The stakes of the average middle grade fantasy novel usually involve the end of the world, and who or what but pure evil would try to bring about that scenario? While fantasy easily lends itself to the macabre, genre contains plenty of light fare to tempt readers who would prefer to stay away from the Dark Forest.  But for those that are ready to enter, three atmospheric works open the way. Melancholic retellings of classic tales, classically influenced fables, and a fantastic new entry to the “chosen one” trope go perfectly with shortened fall days, hot apple cider, and reading under the covers.

Author Emily Jenkins, who writes for teens as E. Lockhart, tells her own versions of classic fairy tales to great effect in Brave Red, Smart Frog: A New Book of Old Tales (Candlewick, Sept. 2017; Gr 4-6). In an author’s note, the author states she didn’t try to reinvent the tales or hew faithfully to their original versions. Using the same technique as the oral traditions on which these tales are based, she wrote them as she would tell them to a live audience. The result is a book of spare and beautiful retellings that beg to be read aloud. At a scant 92 pages, the collection is a refreshingly brief entry to the fairy-tale genre. The seven stories are loosely linked together by a strange, frozen forest where nothing good grows and woodsmen are afraid to cut down the trees. Each piece begins in the same way, “There was once a ___ (princess, woodcutter, child whose mother died),” but beyond the woods and the language, there is no overt attempt made to knit the stories together.

Jenkins’s writing is gentle but knowing, sketching a world of details in few words. Her version of “The Frog Prince” describes the princess as “young enough to play with toys but old enough to think about marriage.” Snow White’s prince is “a curious fellow who liked most pretty girls and all new adventures.” Each story is a perfect encapsulation of versions of the tale that readers may be familiar with, yet still feels fresh and new. Brave Red, Smart Frog is destined to become a beloved classic.

The title character in Goldeline (HarperCollins, Nov. 2017; Gr 5-7) begins her journey in another forest, replete with hidden dangers and baffling mysteries. Debut author Jimmy Cajoleas mixes the Brothers Grimm with The Graveyard Book, and the result is a captivating if dark fable. Goldeline has strange golden eyes and snow white hair, just like her mama. She has her mama’s magic, too. But her mama is dead—burned at the stake by a wicked man named Preacher, who works a strange magic of his own. Now Goldeline lives with a group of terrifying bandits in the forest, using the one magic she does know to whip up a potion of forgetfulness for the bandits’ unsuspecting victims. But when Preacher intrudes on her forest sanctuary, Goldeline and an unlikely new friend are set on a terrifying path through an unforgiving forest. Though this work has the trappings of a book for younger readers, the grim details and frequent, gruesome deaths of the adult characters set it apart from lighter fantasy fare.

Although the story is set at an undetermined time in the fantastical past, the parallels among the villain, Preacher, and our current political world are hard to miss. Preacher is an outwardly moral man who espouses hatred against those who are different—those who have magic and those who choose to love the wrong person. Readers gradually learn that Preacher is himself guilty of both “crimes.” That he hates himself most of all may not be obvious to the intended audience but adds layers to an antagonist who could have been one-dimensional. But even with his complexities, it is easy to root against a man who inflicts such pain and misery on a young girl, and easier still to root for her eventual, bittersweet triumph.

Over the past two decades, a new archetype has nearly supplanted the traditional fairy tale: the chosen one on a journey to save the world. The phenomenal success of The Boy Who Lived  means librarians are always in need of “the next Harry Potter.” Jessica Townsend’s debut, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Little Brown, Oct. 2017: Gr. 5-7), steps boldly into the arena with exciting world-building and a different kind of school for gifted youngsters.

Morrigan Crow has known for as long as she can remember that she’s going to die at midnight on her 11th birthday. All children born on the cursed day of Eventide are thus doomed and during their short lives are blamed for any bad luck that befalls the citizens unfortunate enough to live near them. But on the night Morrigan’s cold, unforgiving father hosts her last supper, a marvelous stranger named Jupiter North appears in her house and whisks her away to Nevermoor, a magical world forgotten by the modern world. Jupiter, a hotelier and member of the magical Wundrous Society, has chosen Morrigan to be his candidate for this year’s membership trials. Morrigan doesn’t believe she has any skills save a knack for causing things to go wrong, but her Dumbledore-esque mentor is keeping secrets that will dramatically influence the trials, Morrigan’s schooling, and the fate of both worlds. Townsend’s magical universe is dripping with inventive details, from giant, talking cats to hotel rooms that slowly absorb their occupants’ personalities. Though the plot is peppered with new worlds and new words, the action is fast-paced enough to keep readers going until they become as familiar with the strange hotels and back alleys of Nevermoor as Morrigan is.

Offer these titles to middle grade readers who hear the forest beckoning.

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