Sunday, April 17, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Book One

Shulman, Polly. The Grimm Legacy. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 2010.

(This entry is cross-posted and adapted at Pequea Valley Reader's Blog.)

It's tempting to complain about this book, because it's not terribly well written. I decided that for me to do so, though, might be a bit unfair, because a: I don't read tons that's written for today's young adult audience (and maybe this is very well-written compared to most of what's out there) and b. I am very picky about fantasy, don't read much of it, and when I do, it tends to be things like Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. To compare any writer (y.a. or not, but especially y.a.) to that poetic genius and truly gifted storyteller would be unfair. Still, even if short, "sound-bite-ish" writing is all the rage for 21st-century y.a. literature; and even if this book had been a real-life take on suburban teen living, fantasy and Lord Dunsany the last things on my mind while reading it, I probably would have wished I'd had the manuscript to edit before it was published and could (kindly) have suggested that Shulman work on the areas that seemed a bit choppy to me and to rewrite some of the dialogue to make it a little less stilted.

But forget the, at times, choppy writing and stilted dialogue. It's easy to do once you get lost in the pages of this book, because it's so wonderfully imaginative (thus, despite temptation, my inability to do anything but say I truly liked it). Elizabeth Rew, our heroine, is someone to whom it's easy to relate (and probably doubly so for the intended teen audience): an awkward teenager attending a new school and still missing her dead mother. School isn't much fun. She's had to abandon the dance classes she enjoys, because her father has a new, larger family to support, and she's feeling the need to earn a little money of her own, especially after she finds herself giving away her sneakers to a homeless woman. When her favorite teacher suggests she apply for a job at a special library, she agrees to do so, having no idea what to expect.

Soon, enough, she discovers exactly how special this library is. It lends out objects, not books -- all kinds of objects. As if that isn't cool enough, the library is also home to a very special collection: magic objects from Grimm's fairy tales. I liked the fact that these objects were stored in an area known as "the cage," because once upon a time, I worked in a large public library that had a "cage" of its own, basically an area down in the basement that was locked off by a "cage" of chain-link doors and that wasn't open to the public for browsing (nothing magical in that one, though, unless you consider archival material magical). Imagine a place that houses such artifacts as the mirror from Snow White, flying carpets, and the twelve dancing princess's slippers. As you might have guessed, this special collection leads to a big, magical adventure (and, like many a good fairy tale, a little romance).

One of the things I loved about this book were all the little nods to classic fairy tales. Elizabeth has two, older, annoying, stepsisters. Her stepmother isn't wicked, but she's not exactly nice to Elizabeth (and does seem to think of her as a built-in maid). Characters in the novel eat gingerbread. Some of them are princes and princesses. It also takes its cue from some of the scarier tales from the brothers Grimm, adding a nice touch of light, spine-tingling, suspense. How do I know it's taking a cue from the Grimm's brothers? The book made me pull our copy of The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales from our shelves (a book, I discovered, that has gathered quite a bit of dust -- unfortunately, not of the fairy sort). I bet it makes everyone who reads it want to refer to that, and what's more magical than a book that leads the reader to other great books? Unless it's a book that not only leads readers to other great books, but that also happens to end on this side of "happily ever after," and is maybe all the more gratifying for doing so.

Give it to your 12-14-year-old daughter/niece/granddaughter/friend. She'll love it.

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