May 02, 2013


Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin. By Liesl Shurtliff. Knopf. $16.99.

Epic: The Junior Novel. Adapted by Annie Auerbach. HarperFestival. $5.99.

Epic: Attack of the Boggans. Adapted by Annie Auerbach. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Epic: Welcome to Moonhaven. Adapted by Annie Auerbach. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Epic: Meet the Leafmen. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Harper. $3.99.

Epic: M.K. Saves the Day. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Harper. $3.99.

     One of the Grimm brothers’ more unpleasant villains is Rumpelstiltskin, the deformed dwarf who spins gold from straw at the behest of a terrified and unhappy young woman so he can induce her to give up her firstborn child – and who, defeated in the end, tears himself in half (in the most gruesome of several versions of the story). First-time author Liesl Shurtliff thus sets herself a more difficult task than do most modern reconsideration-of-fairy-tales writers in trying to make Rumpelstiltskin a sympathetic character. The fact that, by and large, she succeeds, makes Rump a special book even if not a wholly successful one. Shurtliff’s approach to the old story starts by indicating that the title character does not actually know his own name – only its first part, Rump, which of course makes him the source of unending teasing in his impoverished mountain village. And Rump, instead of being a creature of supernatural evil, is simply a boy who stopped growing too soon, so he is small of stature and therefore even easier to bully. And he is an orphan, being raised by his grandmother, his mother having died while birthing him. For these and other reasons, Rump is the proverbial outsider, alone and friendless – well, not quite friendless, since a village girl named Red is rather improbably kind to and protective of him; and Red’s grandmother is, as it turns out, not only someone to be visited by staying on the path through the woods (yes, she is that Red) but also a witch. This is all a little too improbable, even for a retold fairy tale; so is the fact that Rump’s mother’s spinning wheel just happens to be in the old woodpile, waiting to be burned, so Rump can discover it – and his grandmother, who knows the wheel is there and is tied to Rump’s destiny, urges him not to touch it, which is really improbable under the circumstances, since of course he will touch it as a memory of his mother and will then learn that he has inherited from her the ability to spin straw into gold. Improbabilities pile on each other, as Shurtliff pulls out complications from thin air (an authorial magic trick that is best used somewhat less frequently than it is here) – for instance, Rump must ask for something in return for the gold he spins, but (for magical reasons) cannot say what he wants; so it is the miller’s beautiful but rather unintelligent and nasty daughter, not Rump, who comes up with the “firstborn child” idea. Rump is something of a mash-up, or mishmash, of multiple fairy tales, and Shurtliff tries to keep much of the book light, as by having the king known to his subjects as King Barf (an acronym of his names) and by having Rump, cast as a would-be hero trying to save the miller’s daughter by spinning for her, finding heroism thoroughly unpleasant: “The earth was wet and squishy beneath my feet, so my steps made squelching sounds. I froze and waited for movement or noise. All was still. Heroic rescues are not as glamorous as people imagine, I thought as I squished along in the muck.” But the frothy mood is frequently broken, as in the starvation of the people of Rump’s village (including his grandmother) and in Rump’s occasional lapses into philosophical thinking that really seems beyond his capacity most of the time: “They say that a minute is a minute no matter where you are or what you’re doing, but my brain could never grasp that. I think time is a trickster. When I have a lot to do, time shrinks, but when I want something over with, it stretches and yawns, and laughs at my torture. Sometimes the minutes hold hours inside of them.” But despite these and other inconsistencies of tone and storytelling, Rump happens to be, on the whole, a very enjoyable read, and its target audience of preteens – who may not even know the Grimm tale – will enjoy it as a coming-of-age novel in which, as in so many other stories of the type, the abused outsider eventually finds himself and his destiny. Rump is actually better than most of those formulaic tales, because it does have resonance from an old story. As a result, it may be fun to read for those who do not know the original fairy tale, but will be even more enjoyable for those who do.

     The animated film Epic is a modern fairy tale, and a far more formulaic one than Rump or, for that matter, “Rumpelstiltskin.” It is yet another ecology-minded good-vs.-evil story: some unseen, bug-sized little people seek to preserve good things (in this case, a forest) while other unseen, bug-sized little people seek to destroy what is good (in this case by causing things to rot). Now, rot is actually necessary for forest survival, but never mind any, you know, science, except in the cartoon context – in which a cartoon scientist (Professor Bomba) is convinced that the tiny people of the forest exist and has spent years searching for them. His daughter, Mary Katherine, known as M.K., is sure her father is on the cuckoo side of things, until she is magically shrunk down to the size of the Jinn (the good guys) and meets their warrior protectors, the Leafmen, who are just about to do battle with the bad Boggans. Of course M.K. ends up in the middle of the adventure and has an important role in making sure the good guys win, and eventually returns to human size and can thereafter spend time with her father helping him in his observations. Yay. As often happens nowadays, books based on the 3-D animated movie were produced even before the film itself was due to be released. The film is actually based on The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce, but as usual, the new books are tie-ins to the film rather than to the original novel. Epic: The Junior Novel essentially tells the entire story of the film and is intended for readers ages 8-12 (who will, however, have more fun with Rump, unless they see the movie and become fanatically attached to it). For younger kids, ages 4-8, Epic: Attack of the Boggans shows scenes from the early part of the movie, including a Leafmen-Boggan battle and M.K.’s sudden appearance in tiny size. Epic: Welcome to Moonhaven features scenes from later in the film, with M.K. visiting the city of the Jinn and eventually, after suitable adventures and interacting with a variety of characters, helping save the forest. Epic: Meet the Leafmen and Epic: M.K. Saves the Day are both Stage 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series, presenting yet more movie scenes with simple, large-type stories that young fans of the film will enjoy reading to themselves as they re-live the movie experience – assuming they want to. As always with movie tie-ins, these books are strictly for readers who want to experience parts of the film again after seeing it; and also as always, the books will be of no interest whatsoever to anyone who has not seen the film or who, having seen it, decides that the on-screen entertainment was all the Epic they needed.

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