January 21, 2010


The Ever Breath. By Julianna Baggott. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Giant-Slayer. By Iain Lawrence. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Fairy-tale novels for preteens are a dime a dozen these days – well, actually more expensive, but certainly as plentiful as the cliché indicates. Many of the stories are reasonably well written, but have little to recommend them other than the chance of a brief escape from the everyday world – without having to resort to videogames or Web surfing. These two books, though, try to go beyond standard fairy-tale models and involve young readers in some real-world thinking as well. The Ever Breath does this by combining a fairly straightforward fantasy world with the mystery of a father’s disappearance. The central characters, twin brother and sister Truman and Camille, are sent to stay with their grandmother after their dad just seems to vanish. They soon find her to be as strange and mysterious as the house in which she lives. The old woman tells the twins a story about an amber orb called the Ever Breath that maintains the real world in balance with one of imagination – within which great evil lurks. Not unexpectedly, Truman and Camille soon learn the truth of the apparently fanciful tale, finding themselves in the Breath World amid battles and deceit and all sorts of peculiar goings-on. It turns out that the Ever Breath has been stolen – and the twins are the key to saving both the Breath World and their own, hopefully while finding out what happened to their father and rescuing him into the bargain. As one character tells Camille, “We’ll have to find your brother, hope for some communication from your father, and, of course, hope that your father’s had luck locating the Ever Breath.” For of course the twins’ father’s disappearance is connected – must be connected – with the Breath World and the mysterious orb. “Nothing here was quite what it seemed to be,” writes Julianna Baggott, and of course that’s the whole point – nothing in either world is quite as it appears. And “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” comments one character – and if all this sounds a bit obvious and a big clichéd, that is in fact what it is. Some of the characters in The Ever Breath are lively and interesting – there’s a memorable mouse, for example – but a lot of the plot seems recycled from other fairy stories, despite the attempt to connect the everyday and fantasy worlds. And the ending is a bit of a cheat: it points directly toward an upcoming sequel, to be called The Ever Cure.

     The interconnection of real and fantasy worlds is handled much more adroitly in Iain Lawrence’s The Giant-Slayer. Indeed, it is almost too well done: the book can be genuinely depressing if young readers understand what it is about. That is its biggest flaw: it is set in 1955, and the primary real-world scourge it deals with is polio, a horrid and now-extinguished disease whose existence will be of little or no moment to most modern young readers. This book will have its full effect only for readers who understand not only what polio was but also just how awful its effects were. The fairy-tale title of the book belies its structure. Its protagonist is Laurie Valentine, a young girl whose best friend, Dickie, develops polio and is placed in an iron lung (again, readers must know what that is and feel its constrictions to get the full effect of Lawrence’s writing). Laurie visits Dickie in the hospital and meets two other polio-stricken kids, Carolyn and Chip, who have troubles of their own in addition to the disease. Dickie begs Laurie to tell all three of them a story, so she comes up with the tale of a giant named Collosso and a tiny boy named Jimmy – kept small by his father’s unfortunate wish – who is destined to be a giant-killer. The polio patients add to and comment on the story as Laurie spins it out, and there are parallels between the fairy tale and what goes on in the real world; it could even be argued that polio, the disease, is the real-world giant comparable to Collosso in the world of make-believe. Laurie’s story has many of the expected elements of fairy tale: good and evil, curses, Gypsies, charms, and so on. But they are used carefully, and when the characters diverge from their usual fairy-tale portrayal – as, for example, gnomes do in Laurie’s story – it is easy to believe that this results from the imagination of a young girl in the mid-1950s. The Giant-Slayer is ultimately more a period piece than a fairy tale – and is more effective as historical fiction than as pure make-believe. The polio story tends to overwhelm the fairy-tale elements – it certainly does so when Lawrence produces a frightening twist two-thirds of the way through – so readers looking for lighthearted escapism (perhaps lured by the book’s cover) will be disappointed. Those unfamiliar with the history behind the real-world aspects of the story will not get the book’s full effect, either. Thus, The Giant-Slayer is a book that will have very considerable appeal – but not to a very considerable number of the young people for whom it was written.

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