February 21, 2013

(++++) FAIRY TALES AND BEYOND


Bone: Quest for the Spark, Book Three. By Tom Sniegoski. Illustrated by Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

Marigold #1: Once Upon a Marigold—Part Comedy, Part Love Story, Part Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink. By Jean Ferris. Sandpiper. $6.99.

Marigold #2: Twice Upon a Marigold—Part Comedy, Part Tragedy, Part Two. By Jean Ferris. Sandpiper. $6.99.

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True. By Gerald Morris. Illustrated by Aaron Renier. Sandpiper. $4.99.

When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales. By Adele Enersen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $15.99.

      “I’m too old for fairy stories,” says the exhausted and skeptical Chief of a warrior band in the third and final book of Bone: Quest for the Spark. But in truth, it turns out that he is not too old for what only sounds like a fairy tale, told to him by Tom Elm, who – with his friends, including several Bones – is on a heroic quest to prevent the world from being plunged into eternal darkness.  The quest motif is a common one in fairy tales, and the way the quest progresses – with a brave group being sundered and forced to operate separately until, joining near the climax, its members rescue each other and save everything – is pretty much standard in heroic fantasy. Bone: Quest for the Spark fits neatly into that category, and its characters sometimes seem almost aware of the fact, with 12-year-old Tom realizing at one point that the battle between light and dark is an eternal one: “Now he knew that this battle had raged since the beginning, that light and dark had always been at odds. ...It was a balance, as it always had been, but the powers of darkness were growing greedy, desiring what they once had. Before the Spark and the coming of light. When all was black.”  Tom Sniegoski does a good job of keeping Bone: Quest for the Spark in the universe created so effectively by Jeff Smith in the original nine-graphic-novel Bone series; and Smith’s excellent art (beautifully colored by Steve Hamaker) ensures that this trilogy’s conclusion fits tightly into the Bone world from a visual perspective.  The reappearance in Bone: Quest for the Spark of a major, enigmatic character from the original sequence – the gigantic mountain lion whose name is the title of the fifth graphic novel, Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border – pulls Sniegoski’s work even more closely into alignment with Smith’s original, and that is all to the good.  The basic themes worked out here are familiar ones in many heroic quests: bravery against formidable odds, the recruiting of unlikely allies, the possibility of a traitor in the midst of the noble warriors, and others. There is also some of the comic relief here that Smith managed to weave into the Bone graphic novels – mostly through the antics of the Rat Creatures, Stinky and Smelly.  And the new characters introduced in this book – notably Stillman, a small dragon, and his turtle friend, Porter – offer equal parts amusement and heroism.  The basic story of the evil dragon called the Nacht, and the attempt to prevent the victory of darkness by use of the Spark, for whose reassembly the quest has been launched, is a very straightforward one. Sniegoski handles it well, notably by splitting it into so many pieces as the adventures of old and new characters alike go along on separate tracks until they eventually intersect.  The fact that good will eventually triumph over evil has never been in doubt since the start of Bone: Quest for the Spark. But it is rarely in doubt in most fairy tales. Those stories’ pleasures – and the pleasures of Sniegoski’s trilogy – lie in joining the good guys’ adventures, rooting for them to overcome adversity, and being present when they ultimately, against all odds, come out on top despite the apparently greater strength of their foes.

      Fairy tales with a humorous twist offer somewhat different kinds of enjoyment. The first two books in the Marigold series, dating to 2002 and 2008 respectively and now available in paperback, are particularly good examples of the use of fairy-tale motifs to tell what is essentially a very funny (and, yes, occasionally filled-with-adventure) story.  Once Upon a Marigold is the story of how Christian, a commoner who lives in a cave with a troll and has a thing for Princess Marigold, actually wins the girl of his heart and manages to foil the nefarious scheming of Queen Olympia – who is plunged into the river below the castle, never to return until Twice Upon a Marigold. In the second book, the evil queen has recovered her memory (conveniently lost until its reemergence is needed to move the plot) and sets about once again to destroy the now-rulers of the kingdom, Christian and Marigold.  Oh, and their happily-ever-after hasn’t turned out so happily after all, which is a nice touch.  In fact, these two Marigold books are full of nice touches: Jean Ferris channels fairy tales while mixing them with bits of romance and a coming-of-age plot (the first book starts when Christian is only six years old).  What these books have that most fairy tales do not is well-thought-out characterization: Ferris’ creations have depth, and enough quirks to distract readers from the fact that many plot points are predictable.  For example, Edric, the troll who raises Christian, likes to offer adages – and mixes them up; Christian has a stubborn streak that lands him in all sorts of trouble, including with Marigold after they marry; and Marigold herself likes some pretty bad jokes, which is an interesting characteristic for a member of royalty to display (Marigold’s discovery of knock-knock jokes is a high point of the second book).  Twice Upon a Marigold is not quite as original or endearing as Once Upon a Marigold, but its focus on Olympia and on the bickering between Christian and Marigold keeps it interesting and unusual – and the whole book sets the scene for the forthcoming Thrice Upon a Marigold, which will take the story into a further generation by focusing on Christian’s and Marigold’s daughter.

      Gerald Morris’ series, The Knights’ Tales, also partakes of both humor and derring-do, and in the case of The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True the two are pretty much equally balanced.  This book is largely a retelling and expansion of the famous story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century lesson in chivalry and honor updated by Morris for the 21st (the book was originally published in 2011).  The original tale has the mysterious Green Knight offering to accept anyone’s ax blow if he may deliver a similar blow to the ax wielder in a year and a day. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who picks up his head and walks off, reminding Gawain of his promise. And Gawain goes through many travails as he endeavors to keep his word.  This is the basic plot of The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, but even a short novel like this one needs a bit more fleshing-out, so Morris turns the book into an exploration of loyalty, friendship and gallantry (an easier concept for modern readers than chivalry).  And the author is not above addressing the reader directly: “The idea of ‘vows’ has already figured several times in this story, and since that idea is about to be important, it is worth pausing over it for a moment. A vow, of course, is a promise, but in King Arthur’s time, promises meant rather more than they sometimes have since then.”  Just how much they mean is one of the lessons that Gawain learns – along with finding out that courtesy can be as important as courage, and other good stuff that promotes balance between action and thoughtfulness. The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True is not really as preachy as a brief description makes it sound – it is fast-paced and funny – but it does have a lesson to teach, and it manages to do so quite well even while keeping its readers amused.

      And just to make sure that fairy tales and other explorations of myth continue to be of interest to the next generation, there are works such as Adele Enersen’s When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales, a charming picture book in which Enersen imagines the dreams of her daughter, Mila.  The photographs here are just luscious, showing sleeping Mila as the princess who felt the pea beneath multiple mattresses (here, comforters); letting down her long golden hair, as Rapunzel did;  kissing the frog prince; looking like Thumbelina and Tinker Bell; and more.  Enersen rings some amusing changes on the old stories, for instance by combining Red Riding Hood’s tale with that of the three little pigs – who escape by learning to fly.  One of the most amusing photos here shows Mila – sound asleep, as she is in all the pictures – apparently playing the recorder, while two stuffed teddy bears “accompany” her on flute and violin, and the whole ensemble is “conducted” by another stuffed animal.  Enersen goes beyond traditional fairy tales into a broader definition of the genre, showing Mila as Mary Poppins in one photo, as a searcher for the Little Prince in another, and aboard an Arabian Nights flying carpet in yet another. The world of fairy tales is surely wide enough to accommodate all Mila’s dreaming, and all the costumes and settings that Enersen can dream up for her.  Seeing Mila asleep through all the posed scenes does lend the book an imaginative quality – and seeing her awake at the book’s end, in a real-world setting, is a wonderfully visual way to tell readers (including other parents as well as children) that the fairy-tale world may be one of dreams, but those dreams live on in our waking lives to the extent that we absorb, modify, interpret and continue to enjoy them, as we are likely to continue doing for many generations to come.

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