December 09, 2010


Lucy and the Green Man. By Linda Newbery. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Warriors: Omen of the Stars #3—Night Whispers. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $16.99.

Tangled: The Junior Novelization; A Dazzling Day; Outside My Window. Adapted by Irene Trimble (Novelization). Adapted by Devin Ann Wooster; illustrated by Brittney Lee (Dazzling). By Melissa Lagonegro; illustrated by Jean-Paul Orpiňas, Studio IBOIX, and the Disney Storybook Artists (Window). Random House. $4.99 (Novelization); $3.99 each (Dazzling; Window).

     Fairy tales are as alive, as lively and as well as ever these days, even if they are not always identified as fairy tales by authors or readers. The basic notion of interventional magic in the world never really disappears, living on in forms as diverse as the foundations of religions on the one hand and the continued retelling of old secular stories on the other. For preteens and young teenagers, newly fashioned fairy tales often show up in the guise of “magical realism,” which simply means the stories appear to take place in the real world but are altered just enough to allow magic to enter. Lucy and the Green Man and the multiple Warriors series use this approach, albeit in different ways. Linda Newbery’s book seems to be about a garden-loving young girl named Lucy and the sadness she endures, then overcomes, after her grandfather’s death. But it is more: it is also the story of Lob, the Green Man who lives in the garden at Grandpa’s cottage and can be seen by only a few people. Lucy strongly believes in Lob, and after the family tragedy, she repeatedly asks Lob to come to her so they can garden together somewhere else. There is no mystery or uncertainty about Lob: in true fairy-tale form, he simply exists, and his story parallels Lucy’s – his thoughts being given in large type and simple words, scattered throughout the book’s chapters. Lob ends up following Lucy to the city, “a mad, noisy place, full of rush and hurry.” He is seen by other sensitive people and eventually finds a comfortable place to be – but it is only after a full year of separation that Lob and Lucy end up together again, more or less. Newbery tells this gentle story with warmth and affection, and if it is a little obvious and its plot a bit draggy, that is only because Newbery is more concerned with magic in what seems to be everyday life than she is with rapid pacing or adventure.

     The Warriors books, on the other hand, are all about adventure. Erin Hunter’s stories of competing cat civilizations are always intense and dramatic, although at this point there are so many series that the effectiveness of any individual book is somewhat diluted. Night Whispers is the third volume in the Omen of the Stars sequence, following The Fourth Apprentice and Fading Echoes and preceding Sign of the Moon, which is forthcoming. Night Whispers is about the aftermath of a battle between two of the four major cat groups, ThunderClan and ShadowClan. ThunderClan’s medicine cat, Jayfeather, and the warrior Lionblaze are determined to find out why the battle occurred so they can prevent further evil from marring the clans’ lives. Dovepaw, a female warrior in training, joins the two male cats in their attempt to forestall future battles, using her own special powers – whose limitations she is just learning. Hunter uses lots of characters, and is careful to provide each with a brief introduction before the book starts – also showing maps of the cats’ camps and the geography of the area where they live in an uneasy truce. These guideposts help readers keep straight what is going on and where things are happening. But the fairy-tale elements must be taken at face value – not only the entire foundation of Warriors, about cats’ intelligence and forging of civilizations, but also the cryptic warnings that Hunter scatters throughout the books. One example from this one: “‘When the Dark Forest rises, ThunderClan must face its greatest enemy alone.’” The cats’ enemies are ones that, in the real world, might indeed be threats to felines – foxes and badgers, for example – but here their malevolence is planned and orchestrated, making them more deadly than in the real natural world. On the fringes of the cats’ realm are humans (“twolegs”), but they have little to do with the story. Instead, human perceptions are given to the cats: “Ivypaw chewed on her mouse, a little surprised to see that the ShadowClan camp worked just like ThunderClan’s. What did you expect? Mice and squirrels doing the work for them? This book is a buildup to the coming “final battle” (although there is never really a final battle in Warriors); thus, the novel is less significant in itself than as a way station along the road to something larger.

     While Newbery and Hunter make their own fairy tales, the storytellers at Walt Disney Co. specialize in giving existing fairy tales new twists. Tangled, based on the Grimm story of Rapunzel, is more twisted than most. The original tale is one of the darkest and most overtly sexual in the entire Grimm collection, dealing with pregnancy (including, in some versions, Rapunzel’s), the vicious blinding of Rapunzel’s would-be rescuer, and a lengthy, painful exile and separation. The story is older than the Grimms’ 1812 collection: the earliest published version, known as “Persinette,” dates to 1698, but the original tale is hundreds of years older and appears to have been Persian. In any case, the story has been repeatedly modified, with the Grimm brothers themselves changing it between editions to make it more suitable for children, so the squeaky-clean Disney adaptation at least has history on its side. It is not much like the fairy tale, though, except of course for Rapunzel’s gleaming, golden, never-cut hair. Rapunzel is self-assured, or at least becomes self-assured as the story progresses, as today’s Disney females usually do; she herself turns out to be a princess; instead of a prince, there is a Robin Hood type named Flynn Rider, whom Rapunzel ties up with her hair when she thinks him a threat; since Flynn cannot really be a bad guy, he has two accomplices who are: the Stabbington brothers; and the witch, Mother Gothel, who is still evil and must eventually be destroyed, here has good reason for keeping Rapunzel trapped and her hair uncut, since the girl and hair keep the witch forever young. (The name “Rapunzel” means rampion, a root vegetable often thought to be craved by pregnant women; but there is none of this in the Disney story.) Preteens interested in the Disney version of this tale can read a “junior novelization,” which tells the whole story and includes eight pages of stills from the animation. For younger kids, A Dazzling Day tells most of the story in very compressed form, ending with Rapunzel and Flynn in a boat, gazingly lovingly at each other in a scene that looks exactly like one from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. And for still-younger children, Outside My Window is a “Step 2” book (“reading with help”) in the “Step into Reading” series, giving preschoolers and kindergartners the basic story in large type and super-simplified form. In all these guises, Disney’s Tangled shows itself cute and amusing rather than Grimm – but a much-modernized version of a traditional fairy tale nevertheless.

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