April 13, 2006


The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales. By Neil Philip. Illustrated by Mark Weber. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #4: Never Do Anything, Ever. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

     Some of the deepest, most complex and strangest fairy tales ever written were created early in the 19th century by Rabbi Nahman Ben Simha of Bratislava (1772-1810).  Believing himself the fifth and last great Jewish religious leader before the coming of the Messiah, Rabbi Nahman faced tragedy and loss of his messianic hopes when his son died – after which Nahman announced, in 1806, that is was time for him to tell stories.  He told 13 of them in all, each one deeply tied to Hasidic and Kabbalistic traditions and filled with allegory.  Originally told in idiomatic colloquial Yiddish, the stories – as Neil Philip acknowledges in retelling seven of them – are almost impossible to translate without losing much of their multileveled meanings.  Philip tries to restore some of what is lost in translation through a series of notes at the end of The Pirate Princess; but in fact, the book is highly enjoyable with a pure surface-level reading of the tales.  For Nahman adopted traditional fairy-tale elements and forms on which to hang his allegories – this, at a time when the brothers Grimm were just starting to collect folk tales and Hans Christian Andersen was only one year old.  The result is stories that for the most part feel like fairy tales, but often of greater length and always with more complexity – even if the reasons for the complexity are obscure.  Philip modifies the stories somewhat, for example by eliminating a bloody central element of the title tale and replacing it with a different folktale motif.  But he lets the tales stand mostly on their own, even when – as in “The Lost Princess,” Nahman’s first story and the final one in this book – that is not to the stories’ benefit (the abrupt ending of “The Lost Princess,” a tale otherwise spun out at some length, is unsatisfying from a pure storytelling viewpoint).  The funniest story here, “The Turkey Prince,” is one of the shortest.  The best, “The Merchant and the Poor Man,” is the longest, piling impossibility upon impossibility and complication upon complication until its final happy ending.  Fraught with implication and frequently meandering, these stories will not be to all parents’ or children’s taste.  But their exotic elements and unusual handling of folktale traditions will please families that have tired of more traditional fairy-tale fare.

     Jim Benton’s stories of Mackerel Middle School are, in their own way, fairy tales of modern times.  His fourth volume of Jamie Kelly’s diary, Never Do Anything, Ever, is in many ways the cleverest one so far.  The first three were mostly about Jamie’s problems with arch-rival Angeline, who is too sweet and pretty and exemplary to be true – but is all too real for Jamie’s taste.  That’s part of the theme this time, too, but here Jamie discovers that there is more to Angeline than good looks and outward sweetness.  Jamie discovers that Angeline has inner goodness as well.  Could anything be more frustrating?  So Jamie, abetted by her best friend, Isabella, decides that she can be a better do-gooder than Angeline.  The results are predictably hilarious – a scene that has Jamie picking up “old-lady underwear” that has been scattered around a yard is especially funny.  But there are some less-expected developments here as well, such as Angeline helping Jamie out of a tight spot, which leads to Jamie helping Angeline, which eventually leads to a battle of who can help whom more.  Okay, so the rivalry isn’t over, and it is getting a little old at this point.  But it does take on a new dimension in this book, and Benton’s amusing writing and hysterically funny illustrations will make you wonder if he was a middle-school girl with a great sense of the comic in some other life.

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