May 10, 2012
(++++) MYTH TAKES
Enchanted. By Alethea Kontis. Harcourt. $16.99.
The Last Dragon Chronicles, Book 7: The Fire Ascending. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.
The Jungle Book. By Rudyard Kipling. Random House. $10.99.
Kali’s Song. By Jeanette Winter. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
The Cloud Spinner. By Michael Catchpool. Illustrated by Alison Jay. Knopf. $16.99.
Good Night, Laila Tov. By Laurel Snyder. Illustrated by Jui Ishida. Random House. $17.99.
The House at the End of Ladybug Lane. By Elise Primavera. Illustrated by Valeria Docampo. Robin Corey Books. $16.99.
43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Four: The Phantom of the Post Office. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.99.
The constant making and remaking of myths and fairy tales for new generations is what keeps them alive. Their ability to be made and remade is testimony to their underlying truths, which each generation interprets for itself in a different way. Alethea Kontis’ Enchanted is a merging and intermingling of multiple tales of old, from “The Frog Prince” to “Cinderella,” all within the frame of the old rhyme about the seven children born on different days of the week. Sunday Woodcutter is supposedly blessed in many ways, not only because she is “Sunday’s child” (and thus “blithe and bonny and good and gay”) but also because she is the seventh child of a seventh child. But she is not, alas, the seventh son of a seventh son. Both her parents are seventh children, but she is female, and lonely, and “doomed to a happy life,” as she tells us at the outset of a thoroughly charming, wonderfully twisted fairy tale. Rather neglected and rather sad, she comforts herself by writing stories – which, however, no one in her family wants to hear, and which she has to write about her past rather than speculatively about the future, because her predictions tend to come true in unnerving and even unpleasant ways. Really, no one at all wants to hear her stories, until she chances to encounter a certain talking frog. Does she recoil from him, as in the old tale? Not at all: she accepts him and the two become friends. She realizes he is a man under a spell, and kisses him – and absolutely nothing happens; Enchanted is full of such twists. But then one day she kisses him goodbye and does not realize that this time she has broken the spell. And then the complications really begin, for yes, the frog is a prince, but Sunday’s family members hate him and the entire royal family, for what appear to be good and sufficient reasons; and the prince, who so enchanted Sunday when he was himself enchanted, now wants to woo her as a person – and that proves surprisingly difficult. Wistful and amusing, clever and at times outlandish, Enchanted is ostensibly intended for young readers but is written with a degree of stylistic elegance and storytelling sophistication that belies its surface-level fairy-tale plot. For example, when Sunday’s sister, Wednesday, helps discontented Sunday dress for a court ball, Kontis writes, “Standing there behind Sunday, she might have only been her tall, thin image cast by the warm light of the setting sun as it bade its farewell outside the aerie’s window. It was a melancholy day indeed when the sister of solitude was Sunday’s silver lining.” In fact, the tale-telling goes beyond mere melancholy into some genuine chills that highlight the instances of happiness all the more clearly. Fairy tales were not, until well into the 19th century, considered to be stories for children, and this compilation and intensification of their themes certainly isn’t, as is clear when the prince, whose memory has not returned properly upon his resumption of human shape, thinks to himself, “He’d witnessed one too many affairs to be ignorant of the fact that the heart was a fickle beast. ‘Affairs.’ The word tickled the edges of memory. He probably knew a great many women at this assembly far more intimately than their spouses ever suspected. There was so much unhappiness in the world; once upon a time he had drowned himself in it.” This is scarcely the “once upon a time” of naïveté or of Disney movies. Enchanted does for a sophisticated modern audience what well-told myths and fairy tales have done for ages past: it serves as a reminder of the pleasures and risks of magic and wishes, entertaining readers all the while.
The Fire Ascending concludes a very lengthy episode of myth creation by Chris D’Lacey, whose Last Dragon Chronicles has been building for more than a decade. Complex and multifaceted, sometimes overreaching in its determination to do new and different things with dragon legends and stories about how people might interact with them, the series is not merely world-spanning but worlds-spanning – and in the final book, it is time-spanning, too. Here timelines are being rewritten, the evil Ix are taking over under the command of the sibyl Gwilanna, and young Agawin finds himself linked through space and time to the dragon Galen…while David and Rosa are summoned from the future to help the Pennykettle dragons of the past overcome the Ix and their Shadow. If this sounds complicated, that is because it is; and lengthy, too, at more than 550 pages. But the pacing is quick, the writing sound, and the language and vocabulary resonant (but not in an overly would-be-Tolkienien way) and linked clearly the earlier books: “Sometimes I will be at Kasgerden; sometimes I will be at Iunavik. One blink within the eternal ‘now.” …She is drawing upon the unicorn’s auma…” Readers need to accept D’Lacey’s language at face value, so “I imagineered her” has nothing to do with the use of a similar word by the Walt Disney Company, and a speech must be accepted straightforwardly when it says, “Auma is energy. It can be shaped like clay. All it takes is extreme intent and some knowledge of the secret workings of the universe.” Enter D’Lacey’s world or worlds on its or their own terms, and the wonders abound, never more so than in this conclusion of a very extended saga, in which the author, on the one hand, introduces entirely new scenes and characters and treats them at length; and on the other, reintroduces characters from earlier books and pulls their stories and those of the new ones together seamlessly and even elegantly. The Fire Ascending is emphatically not a standalone book: it is designed from the start as a broadening and then a summation of all the Last Dragon Chronicles, and fulfills that role very well indeed for this series’ fans.
Shorter, more simply written, more old-fashioned and quite a bit older, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is equally effective in its own way. This is a genuine classic, originally published in two parts in 1894 and 1895, and its story of Mowgli – the boy raised by wolves – is well known in Disneyfied form from the animated 1967 movie. But the film, which is filled with hippie and Beatles references, seems dated now, while Kipling’s original does not. The tales of the Bandar-Log, the Law of the Jungle, the great python Kaa, the terrifying tiger Shere Khan, the elephant Hathi, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, and all the other animals – their relationships to each other, the origin stories they tell, the laws they obey and the ones they flout, remain as intricate and fascinating as they were more than a century ago. And the cadences of Kipling’s language still charm: “Kaa, the big rock python, had changed his skin for perhaps the two hundredth time since his birth; and Mowgli, who never forgot that he owed his life to Kaa for a night’s work at Cold Lairs, which you may perhaps remember, went to congratulate him. Skin changing always makes a snake moody and depressed till the new skin begins to shine and look beautiful. …That afternoon Mowgli was sitting in the circle of Kaa’s great coils, fingering the flaked and broken old skin that lay all looped and twisted among the rocks just as Kaa had left it. Kaa had very courteously packed himself under Mowgli’s broad, bare shoulders, so that the boy was really resting in a living armchair.” This is not a style used by authors today, and for that very reason it makes the mythic tales of Kipling’s India seem all the more ancient.
Myths and animal tales for younger readers, ages 4-8, can have resonance of their own, but they are most effective when written in language that readily appeals to this age group. Jeanette Winter makes Kali’s Song a story of ancient hunters and a boy who sees animals as more than food: “Kali ran to a hilltop for a closer look. When he saw the magnificent herd below him, he forgot about the hunt, and he forgot about the other hunters. He just heard the music of the bowstring in his head.” And thus Kali, in a book whose illustrations are a highly attractive mixture of handmade paper, acrylic paint, and pen and ink, finds that he prefers to make music with his bow rather than use it to shoot animals; and he is proclaimed a shaman who “uses his weapon to charm the mammoths, not kill them.” The newly created myth here is a lovely one, ending as the stars themselves come closer to listen to Kali’s music – much as the clouds come close enough to the boy in Michael Catchpool’s The Cloud Spinner so the boy can weave cloth from them. The boy sits high on a hill, spinning clouds into thread that reflects the time of day – gold in morning, white in afternoon, crimson in the evening. The hill itself, as pictured by Alison Jay, smiles at the boy’s work, for the boy is wise: “Enough is enough and not one stitch more,” he sings to himself, spinning only enough thread for two scarves – one to shield him from heat and the other to protect him from cold. But the king, seeing the scarf, is determined to have one for himself, and is not satisfied with moderation. He wants the boy to make him a cloak, and dresses for the queen and princess. The boy dares to say, “Your Majesty does not need” so many clothes made from clouds, but the king is insistent, and the boy does as he is ordered to do, with the result that the sky is soon empty of clouds – the crackle varnish used in the illustrations creating a satisfyingly desert-like effect. Without the clouds, though, there is no rain for animals, people or crops; and it takes the understanding of the young princess to help the boy set things right in a charming story whose lesson of “enough and no more” is as clear as a cloudless sky.
The theme of protecting the natural world is told in less of a fairy-tale way in Good Night, Laila Tov, which draws on a Jewish tradition called tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” for a simple story of a family visiting the seashore, woods and fields, with the parents planting young trees as the children explore nature and are comforted to sleep with the words of the book’s title. The lilt of the poetry is as gentle as the story that Laurel Snyder tells: “We found a place so great and green,/ The deepest field we’d ever seen./ We gathered berries, sweet and red,/ As shadows circled overhead.” Jui Ishida’s illustrations give a pleasant roundness to the family and the world itself, subtly enhancing the message of taking comfort in natural surroundings and then returning to an equally warm and pleasant home – which stands in stark contrast to The House at the End of Ladybug Lane, where everything is regimented and neatened and kept just-so by Mr. and Mrs. Neatolini, much to the chagrin of their daughter, Angelina, who is the exact opposite of her parents: no matter how hard they try to keep her neat, clean, prim and proper, she manages to get messy and, even worse (from her parents’ perspective), to enjoy it! Lonesome in the new, sterile house, Angelina begs for a pet: dog, cat, gerbil, lovebirds, parrot, chicken, iguana, raccoons, even a sand crab or jellyfish, but her parents proclaim that “pets are not neat!” And Angelina can do no more than wish for what she is not allowed to have. But wishing can make it so – the whole point of so many myths and fairy tales; or maybe not quite so – the whole point of many others. In this case, Angelina is overheard by a helpful but rather deaf magical ladybug, who thinks that Angelina is asking not for a pet but for a…pest. And so, “Right away the pest came. He went straight to the kitchen and emptied his bag. Out tumbled magical things like powdered sky, tincture of marigold, ground-up forget-me-nots and distilled eye of daydream.” And things quickly get magically marvelous, or marvelously magical, as Elise Primavera shows the increasing mess caused by further attempts at magical-ladybug helpfulness, while Valeria Docampo portrays the resulting chaos with gouache-on-paper illustrations whose colors and shapes almost burst from the pages. Carpenter bees, a pink widow spider, a dozen doodlebugs and other oddities appear as Angelina continues to wish and the ladybug continues to mis-hear, until eventually the horrified Mr. and Mrs. Neatolini explode with exclamation points: “GET RID OF THESE PESTS!!!!!!!” But a few tastes of the kitchen pest’s magic-laden baked goods bring a change of heart in the Neatolinis, who decide that maybe neatness is not the only thing that matters when there is such good food around…and, yes, “they all lived happily ever after,” as people – and pests – ought to in good fairy tales, including newly minted ones.
But not everyone lives happily ever after in the very different house at 43 Old Cemetery Road. Indeed, it might be said that many characters die happily ever after there. For this particular modern myth is filled with ghosts – not the boo-and-scare you type but the helpful and quaint type, most notably Olivia C. Spence, ghostwriter (or ghost writer) of the books of Ignatius B. Grumply, who lives (being still alive) in the old house and acts as dad to 11-year-old artist Seymour Hope, with Olivia acting as mom (Seymour’s horrible parents having long since ceded any right to him and ceased any interaction with him). Seymour and Ignatius communicate with Olivia by writing, and she writes right back, and this whole series is in part about writing and books -- one of its rather old-fashioned charms. The fourth book in the sequence, The Phantom of the Post Office, for ages 8-12, is even more about writing than the earlier ones, for its events are set in motion by a fan letter warning the inhabitants of Spence Mansion that “the end is near.” The end of what? Of the post office, perhaps: the post office in the town of Ghastly, Illinois, is due to close permanently and be replaced by “VEXT-mail…a video-enhanced text messaging system made possible by a wireless electronic veil worn on the head of the user.” But this threatens the entire operation of Spence Mansion, which involves creating books and sending them, three chapters at a time, to readers – using old-style postal mail. As in all the 43 Old Cemetery Road books, the names of the ancillary characters are a big part of the fun: the postmaster is Sue Perstishus, the postmaster general is Sal U. Tayshuns, the news of what is going on is reported in The Ghastly Times by editor Cliff Hanger, a local doctor is Izzy Dedyet, the librarian is M. Balm, and so on. What will happen to the post office? What is VEXT-mail, really? Who is the mysterious letter-writing fan? How is the strange flu virus striking the town connected with everything else? And in what way will 11-year-old Wynonna “Wy” Fye, the librarian’s niece, prove key to figuring out what is going on? Told and illustrated with their usual aplomb by sisters Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise, The Phantom of the Post Office is…well…a plum of a book, using a typical-for-this-series mixture of letters and notes in different styles, sizes and typefaces, plus newspaper articles, to present a highly entertaining story in a highly entertaining way. Not exactly a myth or fairy tale, 43 Old Cemetery Road contains elements of both, including – of course – a happy ending, and a rather sentimental one at that.