May 21, 2009


Paula Bunyan. By Phyllis Root. Pictures by Kevin O’Malley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

Diogenes. By M.D. Usher. Pictures by Michael Chesworth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

Gemma Doyle Trilogy #3: The Sweet Far Thing. By Libba Bray. Delacorte Press. $10.99.

     Retelling old stories for new audiences is an essential part of the continuity of myths and fairy tales. When this sort of recasting of a tale is done cleverly enough, the result is plenty of fun in and of itself – and a chance for ideas that date to much earlier times to survive and thrive in a very different age. Both Phyllis Root’s playful handling of the Paul Bunyan legend and M.D. Usher’s canine remake of the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes do a wonderful job of giving some old ideas an updated twist, while still preserving much of their original flavor.

     Paula Bunyan is, we are told, Paul’s “little” sister, who could beat Paul half the time in wrestling and “always outran him.” Like Paul, she sets off for the North Woods and has a series of adventures there. No Babe (the big blue ox) for Paula, though: instead, she teaches some wolves how to sing in three-part harmony (Paula is an enthusiastic and very loud singer), and she scares the daylights out of a seven-foot-tall black bear that becomes her companion and foot warmer after she shares with it “a little northern pike, about a hundred-pounder,” that she has just caught. The funniest part of this tall tale – not only in the narrative but also in Kevin O’Malley’s delightful illustrations – involves Paula and the bear encountering some mighty big and nasty mosquitoes that carry the bear off (until Paula saves him). Then comes the modern twist – an ecological one – as Paula becomes “sadder than a forest full of weeping willows” when she discovers that men have been cutting down a bunch of North Woods trees. Paula solves that problem by luring some of those pesky stinging insects to the men – “medium-sized mosquitoes, not much bigger than chickens” – and then she replants trees where the lumberjacks cut them down. It’s a nice story, nicely told and illustrated.

     Diogenes is a more serious narrative, but with funnier pictures. This is how the story of Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 B.C.) might have gone if Diogenes had been a dog. It is a very clever retelling by an author who really knows his subject – Usher is a classics professor at the University of Vermont, and discusses the historical Diogenes in an excellent afterword. The book itself is more of a romp, as Michael Chesworth makes Diogenes the dog a scruffy mutt with a strong sense of self and a determination to be his own master – so he grabs a walking stick and his dog dish and heads (walking upright on his two back legs) for Athens. The Athenian street scenes are highly amusing, as are the directional signs (one points downward to Hades) and the portrayal of Alexander the Great (who has the huge muscles and cleft chin of a traditional cartoon hero). The funny pictures help the seriousness of the underlying message go down more easily, as Diogenes learns to need as little as possible and make do with even less; begs for food when hungry and sleeps outdoors when tired; rolls in hot sand to get used to the heat of summer; deliberately makes requests of statues to become accustomed to being refused; and teaches the Athenians that his simple life really lets him “live like a king.” The famous episode of Diogenes walking about with a lantern looking for an honest man (or a good man, as Usher has it here) is included; and the historical Diogenes’ capture by pirates and sale as a slave is here transformed to the dog being caught by the dogcatcher and stuck in the pound until he attaches himself to a new master. This is a wonderful retelling of a story with which modern children are highly unlikely to be familiar – and one which still has plenty of resonance today.

     For older readers, ages 12 and up, authors tend to find it better to create new stories and new myths than to recycle old ones. And the new tales tend to be long, complex to the point of convolution, and just exotic enough so that teens can identify with the characters while realizing how different they are from real people. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy handles all these elements well, if rather formulaically. Its conclusion, The Sweet Far Thing, originally published in 2007, is now available in paperback in all its 819-page glory (not counting the Reader’s Guide at the end). This book gets a (+++) rating for the way Bray interweaves, through 75 chapters, all the tales she has told in A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels into this finale. The first book began in 1895, with 16-year-old Gemma shipped away from her life in India to Spence Academy in England, where secrets seemed to lie within every room. Gemma was distressed by recurring visions that kept coming true and by finding herself followed by a mysterious young Indian man. In the second book, readers learned more about Kartik, and Gemma became fast friends with Ann and Felicity, as the beauties and dangers of the magical place known as “the realms” became clearer. In the trilogy’s often meandering conclusion, everything points toward the girls’ debut season, and change is coming to the realms as well. Gemma has bound powerful magic to herself, and become enmeshed in the struggle between the Order (the group to which her mother once belonged) and the Rakshana. While Gemma’s friends focus on more mundane matters – Felicity must behave herself or lose her inheritance, while Ann may have to give up her dream of a life on the stage – Gemma must deal with darker matters. Many involve Pippa, the three girls’ friend, whom they meet again in the realms but who may face great danger – or be a great danger. Other mysteries involve Gemma herself, who (in true coming-of-age style) must figure out where she stands, who she is, and what sort of person (mundane and magical) she will become. The Sweet Far Thing wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, both in magic and in the everyday world, and fans of the first two novels will surely be just as enraptured by the third. But although the story itself is new rather than a recasting of an older one, tales of this type have been so frequently told and retold that some readers will suspect, rightly, that they have seen their share of books like this one before.

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