Category Archives: fairy tales

Revisiting Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat!

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Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation for the work of Philip Pullman. Most recently I raved about his latest, the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage. After reading and listening to this I went back to the full-cast audio production of His Dark Materials and was happy to find that it was as good as ever. But there are others he is written outside Lyra’s world, among them the charming middle grade fairy tale, I Was a Rat!.  Here’s the publisher’s description:

“I Was a Rat!” So insists a scruffy boy named Roger. Maybe it’s true. But what is he now? A terrifying monster running wild in the sewers? The Daily Scourge is sure of it. A victim of “Rodent Delusion”? The hospital nurse says yes. A lucrative fairground freak? He is to Mr. Tapscrew. A champion wriggler and a budding thief? That’s what Billy thinks. Or just an ordinary small boy, though a little ratty in his habits? Only three people believe this version of the story. And it may take a royal intervention—and a bit of magic—to convince the rest of the world.

Set against the backdrop of a Royal Wedding—and a playful parody of the press, I Was a Rat! is a magical weaving of humor, fairy tale, and adventure.

Over the years, as part of my 4th graders’ study of Cinderella, I’ve read the book aloud and, most recently, showed the movie. This year, after another teacher told me that her students had been captivated by the book I decided to read it aloud after not having done so in years. I quickly discovered that our current obsession with “fake news” made the book’s thread about sensationalism in the media highly relevant. My students took quickly to sweet little Roger, his love for patients (need to read the book to understand this), and the fairy tale connections as well. The story is lively, adventurous, suspenseful, and great fun to read. I highly recommend checking it out.

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Not-What-You-Think-You -Know German Fairy Tales

She immediately owned up to her evil intentions, and the prince rewarded her by running her through with a sword.

A few years ago there was excitement about a “new” trove of Germany fairy tales collected by one Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. They’ve now been organized and edited, translated, and illustrated in a new edition, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  A handful of them are already available online to read including “King Goldenlocks,” “The Wolves,” and “In the Jaws of the Merman.”    Emphatic, direct, harsh, and most entertaining in a particular way!

 

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Coming Soon: Katherine Coville’s The Cottage in the Woods

I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocrity and so when I come across something new I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale DetectivesChristopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series?  And if YA dark is it going to be a lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a  description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss,  I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations.  And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.

The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young cub’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy.  But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.

The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel.  I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.

There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting.  And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.

So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

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Coming Soon: Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Poking around Netgalley not long ago, I came across Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and, intrigued by the description, began reading and was quickly hooked. It is a lovely, moody contemporary reworking of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” set in a museum, no less. I find books set in museum to be tricky things — sometimes the setting seems more important than the rest of it. Fortunately, in this case, it totally works. Our heroine, Ophelia, has arrived in the never-identified city with her older sister while their father works on a blockbuster exhibit of swords. They are all mourning the loss of the family’s mother in their own ways: the father throws himself into work,  the older sister becomes eagerly distracted by the exhibit’s fashionable female curator, and Ophelia gloomily wanders the museum, counting the days and hours since her mother’s death. In her wanderings she comes across the Marvelous Boy of the title and so her adventure begins.  Ophelia is a winning heroine as she fights fear to do what needs to be done (just…you know..saving the world and stuff),  the Boy sad and stalwart (his own back story meanders through the larger story taking place in the museum), the writing elegant, and the plot compelling.  There are creepy creatures, ghosts, a deliciously evil villain, magical things, and plenty more to keep middle grade readers engrossed. 

Recently the publisher sent me a print ARC along with a key and a tiny tube of super glue (a particularly clever if — for those who haven’t yet read the book — enigmatic touch), all of which made me smile.

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Philip Pullman, Shaun Tan, and Grimm Fairy Tales

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Last summer, at a wonderful international children’s literature conference, I met Klaus Humann of Aladin Verlag at which time, among other things, we chatted about his publishing a German edition of Philip Pullman’s Grimm fairy tales retellings. It was interesting to talk to him and later to Philip about the interesting situation of translating a British retelling of what was, after all, originally a collection of stories written and published in German.

I think I also did vaguely know, but forgot until now that Shaun Tan was to do the cover. But now I just learned that he did much more than that, he did illustrations too, small sculptures for each of the stories, no less!  Of course, I ordered it immediately.  You can see a few of them and read about Shaun’s thinking about the creation of them here.  

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New Disney Cinderella

Did you know that Disney has a new Cinderella movie in the works?  Directed by Kenneth Branagh? With Cate Blanchett as the stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother? Well, I sure didn’t. For many of us Disney’s 1950 animated feature Cinderella epitomizes a certain sort of fairy tale princess, one who waits for her prince to come.  Many have railed against these animated princesses (notably Jack Zipes) and Disney has somewhat responded, supplying their more recent princess heroines with more agency. And so I am fascinated to see what they will do with their forthcoming live-action Cinderella.

Here’s the image and press release that came out last week:

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DISNEY’S LIVE ACTION “CINDERELLA”
BEGINS PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY IN LONDON

Starring Lily James, Richard Madden, Academy Award®-winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar®-nominee Helena Bonham Carter and Directed by Academy Award®-nominee Kenneth Branagh

Burbank, Calif. (September 23, 2013)—Walt Disney Pictures announced today that principal photography has begun at Pinewood Studios in London, on “Cinderella,” Disney’s first-ever live action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale.

Directed by Academy Award®-nominee Kenneth Branagh (“Jack Ryan,” “Thor”), the film stars Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Wrath of the Titans”) in the title role, Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones,” “Birdsong”) as the Prince, Oscar®-winner Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator”) as the infamous stepmother Lady Tremaine, and Academy Award-nominee Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech,” “Alice in Wonderland”) as the Fairy Godmother. Holliday Grainger (“Great Expectations,” “Anna Karenina”) and Sophie McShera (“Downton Abbey,” “Waterloo Road”) play Ella’s stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella, respectively. Stellan Skarsgård (“The Avengers,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Nonso Anozie (“Game of Thrones,” “The Grey”) play the Arch Grand Duke and the Prince’s loyal friend, the Captain. Tony® Award-winner Derek Jacobi portrays the King.

“Cinderella” is produced by Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: First Class,” “Elysium”), Allison Shearmur (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), David Barron (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Jack Ryan”), from a screenplay by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass”).

The filmmaking team includes three-time Academy Award-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (“The Aviator,” “Hugo,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (“The Aviator,” “The Young Victoria,” “Shakespeare in Love”), director of photography Haris Zambarloukos (“Sleuth,” “Thor”) and Academy Award-winning editor Martin Walsh (“Chicago,” “Clash of the Titans”).

The timeless story of “Cinderella” dates back to 1697 when first created by Charles Perrault, although it truly came to life for millions all over the world in 1950 with Walt Disney’s celebrated animated feature.

Director Kenneth Branagh says: “It is impossible to think of Cinderella without thinking of Disney and the timeless images we’ve all grown up watching. And those classic moments are irresistible to a filmmaker. With Lily James we have found our perfect Cinderella. She combines knockout beauty with intelligence, wit, fun and physical grace. Her Prince is being played by Richard Madden, a young actor with incredible power and charisma. He is funny, smart and sexy and a great match for Cinderella.

The story of “Cinderella” follows the fortunes of young Ella whose merchant father remarries following the tragic death of her mother. Keen to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother Lady Tremaine and her daughters Anastasia and Drisella into the family home. But, when Ella’s father suddenly and unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family. Finally relegated to nothing more than a servant girl covered in ashes, and spitefully renamed Cinderella, Ella could easily begin to lose hope. Yet, despite the cruelty inflicted upon her, Ella is determined to honor her mother’s dying words and to “have courage and be kind.” She will not give in to despair nor despise those who abuse her. And then there is the dashing stranger she meets in the woods. Unaware that he is really a prince, not merely an employee at the Palace, Ella finally feels she has met a kindred soul. It appears as if her fortunes may be about to change when the Palace sends out an open invitation for all maidens to attend a ball, raising Ella’s hopes of once again encountering the charming “Kit.” Alas, her stepmother forbids her to attend and callously rips apart her dress. But, as in all good fairy tales, help is at hand as a kindly beggar woman steps forward and, armed with a pumpkin and a few mice, changes Cinderella’s life forever.

Production on “Cinderella” will take place at Pinewood Studios and locations throughout England.

“Cinderella” will be released through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures on March 13, 2015.

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Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away

Tom McNeal’s just out Far Far Away is getting some well-deserved buzz so I figured I would post my brief goodreads comments, written after reading it (and liking it quite a lot) a few months back.

A very unique read, sort of spooky, definitely creepy as it goes on. With one notable exception, the characters are-not-quite Grimm characters, but nearly. The book is filled with Grimm tropes and you think the author is going to take you in somewhat predictable fairy-tale directions and he doesn’t. McNeal really knows how to make food sound really scrumptious and also various characters twinkly and fun until…they are not. It probably would have given me nightmares as a kid. That is, I was the sort of kid who always freaked out around clowns and there is a character in this book that reinforces just why they freaked me out. Can’t say more without spoilage.

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NYT on ‘Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm,’ by Philip Pullman – NYTimes.com

“Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm,” then, is effectively an album in which a gifted contemporary composer covers classic songs. As Mr. Pullman notes, an enormous relief and pleasure “comes over the writer who realizes that it’s not necessary to invent: the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician.” And his repertory is undeniably first-rate. These stories, honed through generations of tellers, are the survivors of literary evolution. They are here because they work.

Recognizing this, Mr. Pullman keeps his touch light, lending the stories a plain-spoken, casual voice and respecting the strange transformations, reversals of fortune and patterns of three that give them their power. He concludes each tale with a brief analytical note — praising or criticizing the story, pulling out a piquant detail, sometimes suggesting improvements. This is shoptalk, essentially — an expert narrator pointing out the storytelling triumphs or missteps of his forebears — and it is fascinating.

From an excellent New York Times piece on Philip Pullman’s new fairy tale collection. Highly recommended.

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Philip Pullman’s Twice-Told Tales: “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm”

Pullman’s investment in fairy tales is both intellectual and moral. From fiction, he tells us, we learn about good and evil, cruelty and kindness, but in ways that are always elliptical, as the text works on us in its own silent, secret way. “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once observed. Fairy tales began as adult entertainment—stories told just for the fun of it. But with their exacting distribution of rewards and punishments, they also increasingly tapped into the human urge to derive morals from stories, In his own fiction, as well as in these retellings of the Grimms’ fairy tales, Pullman tells stories so compelling that he is sure to produce in the reader the connection—both passionate and compassionate—that Nabokov called a little “sob in the spine.

From Maria Tatar’s superb New Yorker review: Philip Pullman’s Twice-Told Tales: “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm”

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Interview: Philip Pullman on his Retelling the Grimm Fairy Tales

Philip Pullman is one of the most thoughtful and creative writers of our day. Best know for the brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, the former middle school teacher is also a longtime reteller and creator of fairy tales. While I’m partial to his lively online version of “Mossycoat” (first published as a picture book) and the original story I Was a Rat! because of my work with Cinderella, I’ve found all his fairy tales whether retellings or original to be utterly delightful. And so when he told me a few years ago that he was working on a new collection of Grimm fairy tales I was not surprised. Over several magical meals (I’m honored to call him a friend) we talked intensively about his research for this project and I couldn’t wait to read the final version. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is now out and it is as excellent as I had hoped. Happily others feel as I do and it is being enthusiastically received by adult and children’s book reviewers alike.

There are a number of terrific interviews with Philip about this project, but I thought that one focusing more on young readers and those who work with them might be of interest. Philip was game so here are my questions and his answers.

To start, I’m intrigued that the UK title is Grimm Tales for Young and Old while the US is Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Why the change? 

Publishers like to put their stamp on titles. I have never fathomed why. Arthur Levine (I assume it was him) even changed the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which made sense, into HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which made no sense at all. I can’t actually remember being consulted about Grimm. I have to say I prefer the UK title, but I tend to shrug about these things.

You have always been such an advocate of storytelling. I can remember you urging teachers like myself to learn stories to tell to our students, something I know you did a lot of.  And I also recall feeling guilty as I never did this, preferring to read aloud. I could absolutely sense your pleasure in selecting, retelling, and tweaking these stories. How do you think your background as a teacher and teacher of teachers came into this work?  If you were teaching today would you read or tell some of these tales? Or how about to your grandchildren? Any in particular?  Do you see any limitations due to age or anything else?

All kinds of things come into play when we think about reading versus telling. Maybe reading has a greater sense of ‘authority’ – it comes out of a book! It’s been published! But maybe telling has a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. If I were still a teacher I’d make a point of learning a dozen of these stories well enough to be able to tell them without the book – probably not the most gruesome ones: for that you probably need a mixed audience so the younger children can hide their faces in a parent’s shoulder. But facing a class I would, as I say, make a point of knowing them well enough after many private rehearsals to do without the book and then begin to make little inventions here and there to bring it even more vividly to life.

What really struck me reading these is how playful you are in your alterations and embellishments. Say the hilarious commentary of the three little men of “The Three Little Men in the Woods” or having the wife in “The Fisherman and his Wife” call her husband a defeatist. I especially enjoyed how you upped the ante in “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”

The Grimms:
The king had ordered that if anyone should approach who was carrying bagpipes and riding on a rooster, that he should be shot at, struck down, and stabbed, to prevent him from entering the castle.

Yours:
The king had given strict orders that if anyone approached the palace playing the bagpipes and riding on a cockerel, they should be shot, stabbed, bombed, knocked down, blown up, strangled, anything to prevent them from entering.

Any thing you’d like to say about these delightful touches? Where you place them and why, perhaps? Or anything else you’d like to tell us?

I’m glad you like them! Another one I enjoyed was having the giant say “Respect!” to the little tailor, and the frightened soldiers protest that they couldn’t fight him because having killed seven at a blow he was a weapon of mass destruction. And so on. I thought that if a story was light-hearted enough to start with, it could bear a bit more fooling around. The story I call “Farmerkin’, which is normally rendered as ‘Farmer Little’, is another example. But I wouldn’t have thought it right to play about with ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Wrong tone altogether.

I don’t think I did any of that stuff with deliberate forethought, though. It just leapt into my fingers as I wrote. If the story-sprite laughs, then I laugh too.

How did you select the tales?  I can certainly see that some are personal favorites, but some are quite odd, not always likable, and you even say that in your notes. Yet you included them. Why?

The only one I actively dislike is “The Girl Without Hands’, but I put it in because there were some things I wanted to say about it. I had a completely free hand when it came to choosing the stories, and I was very glad of it. I felt I had to put in all the famous ones – though actually there are fewer than we think of those – because people would expect them to be there, and it would be silly to leave them out. I would have put them in anyway, in fact, because they are so good – they’re famous for good reasons. As for the others, they were there because I found them interesting to talk about, such as ‘The Goose Girl at the Spring’, or because I found them powerful and strange, like ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’, or because I was just fond of them, like ‘Lazy Heinz’ or ‘The Moon’.

Your notes are simply wonderful. As I told you before, I think nothing beats your suggestion of what to do with Thousand Furs’ father, but you’ve got others too. Say your consideration of Disney’s Snow White film, how it is such a pull on any new telling of the original tale, and most delightfully that his dwarfs are “toddlers with beards.”  Or how you resolved the dilemma of how many pieces to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves.” Given the clear depth of your background reading, how did you decide what to put into these notes? Is there anything you reluctantly left out that you might want to tell us now?

Thank you. I’m always glad when people praise my notes, because I think they do say things that I think are worth saying. I was certain from the beginning that I wanted to follow each story with a few paragraphs (or less, or more) of commentary, and I wanted it to come immediately after the story and not tucked away at the back. The editors were happy to let me do it – in fact they were remarkably non-interfering throughout the whole process. I didn’t want to overburden the notes with scholarly stuff, because others – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar – have done it already better than I ever could, and because my emphasis was always on how the story worked. I don’t think there’s anything important that I left out, but as I continue to think and talk about the stories I might think of a few more things to put in.

For those in particular who work with children and/or their books is there anything in particular you would want to say to them about these tales, about the Grimms, or about storytelling in general?

The one thing I’d emphasise to the most important people in this situation, namely students who are going to be teachers (most important because it’s in the early stages that we form all our habits), is this: whenever you can, don’t read stories like this to children: get them firmly into your head and tell them, face to face, without a book in your hands. These tales are not literature, which is written, they’re something else. I know it’s nerve-racking to put the book down and just tell, because the book is a protection in many ways (not least: if the session fails, you can blame the book instead of yourself). But it doesn’t really take much memory-effort to learn a story like The Little Tailor or The Three Little Men in the Woods. I don’t mean learn all the words by heart – far from it. I mean get the events in your head so you can relate them easily and confidently. If every young teacher could take the trouble to get two or three dozen stories in their head so they could tell them at a moment’s notice – and they’re not very big, they pack down very flat, there’s plenty of room for them in your brain – then they would never be at a loss how to fill that odd ten minutes at the end of a day, or how to calm down a class if they’re fractious and over-excited during a day when it’s raining and they can’t get out to run around, or if they want to start off a new project. And what’s more they last like nothing else. When thirty or forty years later you meet by chance one of the kids you used to teach, the one thing they’ll remember is that story you told that Friday afternoon about Orpheus and Eurydice, or The Goose-Girl, or Hades and Persephone, or Hansel and Gretel. They’ll forget Pythoagoras’s theorem or the names of the first five American Presidents or the principal exports of Brazil, but the story will still be there, and they’ll be grateful for it. Nothing is so valuable, so lasting, so deeply loved as stories. Why would anyone not seize at once, with both hands, the immense privilege of telling stories, when it’s so easy to achieve?

Oh, Philip, clearly you won’t let me off the hook and so I will now try to get past my self-consciousness and attempt to learn some tales to tell to my own students. Certainly yours are the perfect source material for that. My great thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.  

To end, this lovely book trailer with a taste of Philip’s storytelling prowess:

also at Huffington Post

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