The Birthday Ball. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Houghton Mifflin. $16.
Your Life, but Cooler! By Crystal Velasquez. Delacorte Press. $7.99.
The fairy-tale motif has continued appeal to preteen readers, whether it is dressed in old-fashioned clothes or decked out in the latest fashions. The Birthday Ball takes the old-style approach, albeit with a whole series of sly and amusing updates and a thoroughly delightful twist ending. Lois Lowry tells the story of an almost-16-year-old princess whose life is terribly, horribly boring, and who will be required on her birthday to choose among three outstandingly distasteful suitors and get married. Well, four suitors, actually, if you count the two heads and conjoined body sported by one of them. (This is but one way Lowry twists typical fairy-tale lore.) So the princess, in true prince-and-pauper style, changes places for a time with her 17th chambermaid and thereby gets to go to the village school, where she is taught by a handsome new schoolmaster who may, just may, be concealing his noble blood (there turns out to be a twist here, too). And as the birthday and its inevitable ball and required choice draw nearer, Lowry introduces each of the three (or four) suitors, every one of them more repulsive than the last – one so ugly that his parents long ago banned all mirrors and shiny objects from the kingdom, one so vain that he insists on seeing himself in mirrors all the time and keeping his valet nearby to brush off his overproduction of dandruff, and one (or two) who spend his (or their) time fighting each other and making poop jokes. Real winners, these guys. But Princess Patricia Priscilla is a winner, whether trying to remember which of her parents was killed by what wild animal (as part of her “simple peasant” disguise) or having her heart go out to the very young orphan who sits next to her in class. Throughout this whole delightfully skewed and often hilarious novel, Jules Feiffer – who at 81 still draws with his instantly recognizable and thoroughly youthful flair – adds to the enchantment with pictures from the pretty to the prickly. His portraits of the suitors, especially the ones showing them practicing their dancing, are simply hilarious, while his drawings of the wide-eyed princess and the other put-upon characters are genuinely touching. This is not a “big” book, and it would be stretching things to call it Lowry’s or Feiffer’s best work. But it is nevertheless a delight, like a fine performance by two virtuoso musicians who may not be playing the greatest work ever written but who make what they do perform seem better than it is through their sheer artistry and panache.
Crystal Velasquez’ Your Life, but… series takes fairy tales into the present by putting them in a modern middle-school setting. Like the first volume in this series (Your Life, but Better!), the second – Your Life, but Cooler! – is a choose-your-own-adventure book that includes a series of quizzes for girls ages 8-12 to take about real-world (if usually superficial) issues. Each choice takes you to a different chapter at a particular point in the story. The second book is a sort of middle-school American Idol (and what is that if not a modern fairy tale?). The idea is that the school’s star singers have moved on to high school, so new stars are needed, and the reader needs to decide what she will and will not do in order to attain stardom – or whether she wants it at all. The book is pretty obvious and at times pretty preachy. If you make certain choices, for example, you are directed to a chapter that begins, “You’re aiming for the top of the social ladder and won’t stop until you get there! …But you might want to be careful about who [sic] you step on to get there, since you might see them again on your way back down.” Making a different set of choices leads instead to a chapter that starts, “You’re happy being exactly who you are and hanging with your close-knit group of buds. You may not ever be in the middle of the action, but you know that wherever your true friends are is the coolest place to be.” The judgmental underpinning of the choices and the unending focus on superficiality are not entirely out of place in a book for middle-schoolers, but Velasquez certainly never attempts to rise above the obvious in her plot points or alternative outcomes. The book is worth a (+++) rating as light entertainment in a “modern fairy tale” mode, but it should certainly not be taken as seriously as Velasquez seems to hope her readers will take it. And it never does answer, or even attempt to answer, the question that its title begs readers to ask: cooler than what?