October 14, 2010


Clever Jack Takes the Cake. By Candace Fleming. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

The Leanin’ Dog. By K.A. Nuzum. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $5.99.

Storyteller. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Fairy tales are not what they used to be: myths and legends interlaced with history and admonitions, all handed down orally over many generations. But the fairy-tale approach to storytelling, involving magic and supernatural intercession and the eventual triumph of good over evil, persists in modern books for children of many ages (and for adults, too, although that is a different story). Candace Fleming is particularly comfortable with stories in this tradition. Clever Jack Takes the Cake, for ages 4-8, is a delightful all-new fairy tale set once upon a time, when kings invited poor boys such as Jack to birthday parties for princesses. Having no gift to bring the princess, who is about to turn 10, Jack comes up with a clever way to make a cake even though he and his mother do not have money to buy the ingredients. Jack trades: extra food to the chicken for two eggs, a kiss on the cow’s nose for a pail of her milk. He searches: walnuts under a walnut tree, a succulent strawberry in the strawberry patch. And he makes an absolutely wonderful-looking cake that says “Happy Birthday, Princess” on it in walnut letters. And then the cake is systematically destroyed as he walks toward the palace, since of course he cannot afford to ride: birds attack it for the walnuts, a troll takes half the cake as a toll for crossing the river, and eventually there is only the strawberry left – which a palace guard takes and eats. Jack has nothing to give the princess, except… Well, it turns out that he does have something after all, for Jack proves to be as clever at storytelling as he is at baking, and the tale of the cake pleases the princess more all the boring jewels and tiaras brought by other children. It would be hard to find a better endorsement of storytelling anywhere in traditional fairy tales – and G. Brian Karas’ highly amusing but not-overdone illustrations make things even more enjoyable.

     Fleming’s “fabled” middle-school stories are for ages 7-11, which makes sense: The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School has now been succeeded by The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. As in the earlier book, Fleming here offers a series of short chapters, each with an Aesopian moral at the end. The very first chapter introduces all the kids, through the simple device of having their teacher write down notes about each of their rather “difficult” personalities – with the moral, “One man’s pain may be another man’s pleasure.” And then come the stories. The curriculum includes such items as “the life cycle of Bigfoot” and “the best recipes using salami and butterscotch pudding” (moral: “expect the unexpected”). A reporter thinks she hears “head lice” when someone says “headlights” (moral: “don’t believe everything you hear”). The class hopes for an unusual pet, such as a Komodo dragon, or two-headed cobra, but gets plain old guinea pigs – which, however, turn out to have some remarkable abilities (moral: “appearances can be deceiving”). And so on. Fleming’s inventiveness and sense of magical possibility fit neatly into the fairy-tale realm and will have readers hoping that the kids stay together when they go on to sixth grade.

     The simplicity of fairy-tale storytelling (astonishing events told in easy-to-comprehend language, often filled with the repetitions inevitably associated with stories transmitted orally over many years) tends to disappear, along with some of the tales’ charm, in books for older kids. The Leanin’ Dog, for ages 8-12, is an example. An effective enough story that deserves a (+++) rating, it is intended as realistic fiction, but with some twists from the fairy-tale realm. The characters in K.A. Nuzum’s novel speak in dialect – even when talking of old fairy tales: “‘There’s a special book way back in there, dog, full of stories from the desert. And all of them, all the stories are told by a fine lady named Miss Shahrazad. You know why she bothered telling all these stories, dog? To keep the sultan occupied so he wouldn’t chop off her head. Can you imagine?’” The dog does not speak back to Dessa Dean – this is not that sort of story – but there is magic in him nevertheless, since he shows up when she most needs a friend, and each of them provides the stability and love that the other seeks. This is a rural story, its climax involving a starving bear posing danger to Dessa Dean and her home, with Leanin’ Dog saving the girl and helping bring the family closer – at Christmas, no less. Dessa Dean makes Brown Betty and mashes taters. Her father is a strict but fair man of few words: “‘Don’t matter if he takes to it or not. The dog goes outside.’” Mama is up in Heaven, but the family has a Christmas angel that Daddy modeled on her. The tearjerking here is pretty obvious, but the fairy-tale elements, although downplayed rather than central to the story, add to the book’s sense of depth and resonance.

     Storyteller is for a wider age range and intended even to appeal for teens: it is targeted at ages 8-14. The fairy-tale element in Patricia Reilly Giff’s (+++) novel is the interconnectedness of family narratives from two centuries: Zee’s, from the time of the Revolutionary War, and Elizabeth’s, from today. The eerie resemblance between the two girls – a fairy-tale device as well as one used often used by adventure and horror writers – becomes the basis of a narrative told in alternating chapters by the two girls. Motivated by anger after learning that she must live for a time with a relative she barely knows, Elizabeth turns her feeling of connection with Zee’s portrait into a study of the history of Zee’s time; and Zee’s chapters bring that history and all its hardships to narrative life. Zee’s story includes horrors that modern children rarely confront, at least in the United States: Zee’s mother is murdered and she must set off on a dangerous wartime journey to find her father and brother. Eventually, Elizabeth’s researches make her realize that she is a storyteller – hence the novel’s title – and must keep Zee’s tale alive for the family. The gulf between Elizabeth as storyteller and Fleming’s storytelling Jack is quite wide – wider than the age difference of the target audiences for the books might lead families to expect. The framing device is rather obvious in Storyteller, and Giff’s strong focus on history, however well-meant, may not appeal to older readers in the target age range, although younger ones should enjoy the adventures. There is something rather obvious in showing how Elizabeth’s modern worries and concerns pale before those faced by Zee two centuries earlier – but fairy tales, too, tend to overstate danger in order to bring things to a happy ending.

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