February 09, 2012


Twice Upon a Time: No. 1—Rapunzel, the One with All the Hair; No. 2—Sleeping Beauty, the One Who Took the Really Long Nap. By Wendy Mass. Scholastic. $6.99 each.

Everest: Book One—The Contest; Book Three—The Summit. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     Six years after their first release, Wendy Mass’ Twice Upon a Time stories about Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are as much fun as ever, and just as clever. The photographic covers of the books’ new editions may draw in some new readers, which would be just fine, since these retold tales deserve to continue to delight. The “twice” in the overall title refers to two separate things: the notion that these are twice-told (that is, retold) fairy tales, and the fact that each of them is told from two perspectives – that of the title character and that of her prince. These are decidedly not traditional tellings of the stories. In Rapunzel, the One with All the Hair, both Rapunzel and Prince Benjamin are trapped – she in the traditional tower after being abducted by the traditional witch, he in a castle that his mother won’t let him leave even though he is 13 years old. (The original fairy tale, which is a particularly dark story, involves lust, pregnancy and other very adult themes that Mass excises from her version.) The tale is fleshed out with animals (a cat that Rapunzel finds in her tower prison) and new characters (a green one helps Rapunzel). Mass plays with the story in many ways – before the prince knows about Rapunzel, for instance, he is hunting in the woods for a treasure that turns out not to exist. Mass also gives the chief characters personality: Rapunzel is initially rather self-absorbed, but learns to think more about others, while Prince Benjamin is too cerebral for his role – he prefers chess to hunting. Mass rings similar changes on Sleeping Beauty, the One Who Took the Really Long Nap. Here the prince, who has no name (just “Prince”), has a mother who is part ogre and who has a strong craving for human flesh on the first and third Thursdays of the month. The princess, who does have a name (Rose), is good at everything (except maybe cooking), thanks to the gifts she received from her fairy godmothers before the offended angry fairy cast the death spell (later magically changed to a sleeping spell) on her. The prince spends a fair amount of the story being confused rather than heroic: the way he finds Rose is by unexpectedly discovering a building in his back yard. And when he does revive Rose, of course he has to figure out how to bring her home to dear old mom. Both these retold fairy tales are fun and funny, enjoyably written and fleshed out in ways that the original stories never were (and never were intended to be). These books were delightful reading for ages 8-12 in 2006, and they remain delightful for preteens in 2012.

     Gordon Korman’s Everest trilogy, which dates to 2002 and is for the same age group, does not repay rereading quite so well and gets a (+++) rating. The idea here – set forth in The Contest – is that a company called Summit Athletic (get the name?), which makes sports drinks and energy bars, runs a contest in which 20 young climbers compete to become part of a four-teenager team to climb the world’s tallest mountain. The typecast personalities are never fleshed out, and the eventual winners – Dominic, Perry, Sammi and Tilt – are, not surprisingly, a diverse group with contrasting goals (three boys and one girl; one reluctant climber, Perry, and one heavy one, Tilt; and so on). The entire first book is devoted to the competition for the chance to climb the mountain. The second, The Climb, follows the four teens, the expedition leader, a doctor and a cameraman up Everest, facing mostly predictable fears, worries and perils. The third book, The Summit, piles on the drama (or rather the melodrama) as the temperature drops to well below zero, supplies begin to run out, and (in line with typical melodramatic plotting) it turns out that one of the competitors is trying to sabotage the others. A huge storm complicates things even further. The certainty that one of the teens will not survive the climb permeates the final book, but in light of Tilt’s unending rule-bending in his determination to make it to the summit, there is never much doubt about who will be Everest’s victim and thus attain redemption of a sort. There is also no doubt that the Everest trilogy is exciting and fast-paced; and the character interactions, surface-level though they may be, add to the sense of danger posed by the mountain climbing itself. But the trilogy is just too neatly staged, too carefully arranged, too formulaic, to hold up well a decade after Korman created it. Exciting, certainly; memorable in the long run, not really.

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