Patricia C. Wrede – Dealing With Dragons

I believe that there are too many great books coming out this year. Which is why I finally did what I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I picked up an older book that is somewhat of a classic of fantasy literature. At least that’s my impression. My first Patricia C. Wrede read was much more charming than expected and I look forward to returning to the Enchanted Forest soon.

dealing-with-dragonsDEALING WITH DRAGONS
by Patricia C. Wrede

Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers, 1990
Ebook: 212 pages
Series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.

Meet Princess Cimorene–a princess who refustes to be proper. She is everything a princess is not supposed to be: headstrong, tomobyish smart… And bored. So bored that she runs away to live with a dragon. And not just any dragon, but Kazul–one of the most powerful and dangerous dragons arounds. Of course, Cimorene has a way of hooking up with dangerous characters, and soon she’s coping with a witch,a a jinn, a death-dealing talking bird, a stone prince, and some very oily wizards. If this princess ran away to find some excitement, it looks like she’s found plenty!

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Cimorene is a terrible princess, mostly because she is no good at princessing. She wants to do magic and fight and learn boy-stuff, not embroidery and dancing. As much as I hate the initial message of this book (everything girly is bad and boring), Cimorene makes up for all of it later on. She runs away, promptly meets some dragons and becomes the princess to the dragon Kazul. Because you see, much as it is tradition (and a form of establishing status) for princes to rescue maidens from dragons, having your own princess is a status symbol for a dragon.

Except most princesses want to be rescued and Cimorene will not have it. In fact, she has a rather hard time keeping away all the knights and princes trying to “save” her from the clutches of Kazul, who is much more a friend than an evil mistress. Cimorene likes cleaning up the dragon caves, organising the library, and sorting through the treasure cave. But dragons have politics of their own and not all is as peaceful as it seems.

The plot itself is quite cute, although very obvious to an adult reader. But despite seeing where the story was going from miles away, I enjoyed reading about Cimorene immensely. The villains may be obvious, but not always – prince Therandil, for example, may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but he is sympathetic enough. I really liked how things aren’t totally black and white, as in most books for children. I also liked the side characters, because they had their own flaws and personalities.

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Cimorene is just a cool heroine to root for. She is practical and brave, knows what she wants and is quick to make friends. But she’s also far from naive, and sometimes has to use all her cleverness to escape dangerous situations. Wizards and jinn are not to be trifled with, after all, and just because you may live with a dragon doesn’t mean their fire can’t hurt you. But my favorite part was probably the little remarks about fairy tale tropes. Like how it’s tradition to invite a fairy to a princess’ christening, or how it always has to be the youngest son who does important stuff. There are even little asides about princesses who did just what they were supposed to do – fall asleep for a really long time until a prince kissed them awake, spin straw into gold, and so on. These fairy tales are treated as the norm in this world, which gave this an added layer of fun and originality, because Cimorene so decidedly refuses to be put into that princess mold.

This was a delightful read, in every sense. The language was simple, but made it hard to put the book down at any point. The characters were lovely, the plot was nice, and the overall message – find what you enjoy and make that your job, pick your own family (and make it one who loves you for who you are) – is one I can wholeheartedly agree with. It rankled how distasteful Cimorene found her “girly” lessons at the beginning but even she has to admit, in the course of her adventure, that some of it came in quite handy.

I already look forward to the sequels because I have a feeling this series is a great comfort read, something to get you out of a reading slump, something to always leave you smiling. I also look forward to Cimorene growing up some more and finding her place in the world.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions:

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E.D. Baker – The Wide-Awake Princess

I’m going through a weird phase right now, where I pick up a book I’ve been looking forward to, can’t get into it, find something else that I randomly start and can’t stop. In my attempt to get into a normal start-a-book-finish-a-book rhythm, I took a deliberate break and read this little middle grade book as a sort of palate cleanser.

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THE WIDE-AWAKE PRINCESS
by E.D. Baker

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2010
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Wide-Awake Princess #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: “We can’t let it happen again,” Queen Karolina said, dabbing at the tears that glistened in her deep blue eyes.

In this stand-alone fairy tale, Princess Annie is the younger sister to Gwen, the princess destined to be Sleeping Beauty. When Gwennie pricks her finger and the whole castle falls asleep, only Annie is awake, and only Annie-blessed (or cursed?) with being impervious to magic-can venture out beyond the rose-covered hedge for help. She must find Gwen’s true love to kiss her awake.

But who is her true love? The irritating Digby? The happy-go-lucky Prince Andreas, who is holding a contest to find his bride? The conniving Clarence, whose sinister motives couldn’t possibly spell true love? Joined by one of her father’s guards, Liam, who happened to be out of the castle when the sleeping spell struck, Annie travels through a fairy tale land populated with characters both familiar and new as she tries to fix her sister and her family . . . and perhaps even find a true love of her own.

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What if Sleeping Beauty’s parents didn’t behave like fools twice? So they messed up their firstborn’s fairy gifts and the evil fairy made sure that Gwen will prick her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns 16.  Except a good fairy made sure that, instead of dying, Gwen only falls asleep for one hundred years, and can be kissed awake by her true love to lift the curse. Sleeping Beauty as we know it. But with their second child, Annie, the king and queen took care to make smarter choices for her christening gifts. Instead of beauty and a gorgeous singing voice, Annie’s got the ability to resist magic of any kind.

I really liked the beginning of this story. Annie is (almost) the only person in her kingdom who isn’t enhanced by magic, so next to her beautiful sister and mother, she looks rather plain. Princes and princesses are all beautified and seem perfect because when magic is easy to obtain, why not be pretty, right? This puts Annie in a difficult spot from the start because she is a princess but she looks … normal. Her personal fairy gift/curse to resist all magic comes with another caveat. Whenever she is too close to or touches somebody enchanted, their magic fades. Annie’s mother doesn’t want Annie anywhere near because then her own beauty will fade. The same goes for Gwen.

So Annie spends time with people who don’t care about looks – she talks to the palace servants, learns how to ride a horse from the stable boys, chats with the guards, and silently suffers being so distant from her family. It’s a great set-up for a novel, even if it hammers its message in with a sledgehammer later on.

Despite the king and queen’s careful precautions, the curse on Gwen does come to pass, everyone falls asleep and only Annie is unaffected because magic doesn’t work on her. She teams up with Liam, the palace guard who was outside the castle when the curse struck, and goes on an adventure to round up all the princes in the kingdom. She’s not sure who is her sister’s true love, so just in case her fiancé isn’t, bringing a few more princes for safety sounds like a good plan. On their adventures, they meet a version of Hansel and Gretel, the frog prince, and many other characters who seem familiar but original.

The idea is cute enough, as are the brief encounters with fairies, princes, princesses, and lost children. But there is absolutely no depth to this story whatsoever. I haven’t read middle grade books in a long while and I don’t really know how forgiving to be about the on-the-nose message. You see, Annie is special because she does boy-stuff (riding) and non-royal stuff (talking to servants like they’re actual human beings). Apparently, you can only be kind if you’re not beautiful because everyone who is pretty – usually by magic fairy gift – happens to be a major douchebag. The princes, even the ones who seem okay at first glance, turn out to be shallow, money-grabbing idiots, the girls are even shallower, obsessed with their looks and being royalty and with no interests of their own.

At times, it seemed that Annie and Liam are the only two decent people in the entire kingdom. Some side characters are at least not complete jerks, but have one character flaw or another that makes them not as good as the protagonists. In the tournament for prince Andreas’ hand especially, I loathed the side characters. Except for Annie, all the participating girls were shallow, unlikable idiots. The “tests” in that tournament included things such as horse riding, how to keep dancing when your partner stomps on your feet, and eating food. Because learn this lesson, young girls: You must be able to eat everything and enjoy it! Except we all know you must also be pretty and take care of your body… there’s a real-world dilemma for you. But since only Annie masters all these tasks, because she is the protagonist and thus perfect, it’s not really something that encourages readers to think for themselves.

On the one hand, I’m willing to forgive the stereotypes and tropes, because this was written for very young kids. On the other, I always think children – even small ones – should be challenged and treated like real people. Just because somebody is young doesn’t mean they can’t grasp big ideas or see that treating someone badly just because they’re not beautiful is wrong. This isn’t the most thought-provoking children’s book out there, but it does mix up fairy tales in a really cute way. So ignoring the extremely black and white characters and the predictably convenient plot, I have to say the book still offered me a couple of hours of brainless fun.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish

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Second opinions:

Anne Ursu – Breadcrumbs

Fairy tale retellings have been a priority this month. But I must say, most of the ones I ended up reading were big disappointments. However, I don’t give up easily so I kept trying. And among the bad or badly written ones, I did find a gem or another. This little book was charming in so many ways and retells Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Snow Queen” (a personal favorite of mine). Plus, who can resist these adorable illustrations? I love the style and will look for more books illustrated by Erin McGuire.

BREADCRUMBS
by Anne Ursu

published: Haper Collins, 2011
ISBN:0062049240
pages: 320
artwork: Erin McGuire
copy: ebook

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

Hazel Anderson doesn’t fit in. It took her a while to find out why but wherever she goes, she’s the odd one out. Whether it’s her dark brown skin, her big brown eyes and deep black hair or whether it’s the fact that her head is always in the clouds and she has trouble concentrating in her new school. The only bright side is her neighbor and best friend Jack. With him, she can pretend they’re superheros playing baseball (Batman is oddly lousy compared to the others) and make up stories about the “shrieking shack”.

The shrieking shack, in fact, is only one of the many references and hints tot works of children’s literature. Hazel loves Harry Potter and Narnia, Hobbits and fairy tales, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (that made me smirk in particular), adventure stories and comic books. This love for fantasy was part of her appeal as a protagonist – at least for me. I remember my school days when nothing in the classroom was as interesting as the view out of the window (dreary as it was) where I could imagine I saw a dragon flying behind that cloud and a forest sprite dancing in the trees… Hazel is immediately likable, despite or maybe because of her lack of social skills. As an 11-year-old she desperately wishes she had quippy answers to everything or knew what to say about Jack’s mother who is “sick with sadness”. But the right words never seem to come to her and Jack is the only one who makes her belong.

This book is very much a story in two parts. The first is firmly grounded in reality. We meet an awkward but wonderful little girl with one true friend and otherwise not many things to make her happy. Being adopted and now minus one father is not the only problem Hazel has to deal with. Her best friend’s mother suffers from depression which weighs all of them down. Hazel’s mother wants her daughter to make friends with other people and to receive fewer calls from the school about Hazel’s behaviour and lack of attention.
Yes, this is a fairy tale retelling but in the first half, the only magic is in Hazel’s head. A very read, very daunting world awaits the characters and any kind of warmth Hazel can find comes from books and movies.

In the second part, the true fairy tale begins. Magic is everywhere and the structure of the novel switches to our well-known fairy tale style. Hazel walks through this enchanted wood to get her friend Jack back. On her journey, she meets many fearsome creatures and scary people, friends and people in need, strange birds and living nightmares. I won’t tell you about the ending – if you know The Snow Queen you can guess anyway – but I thought it was really well done. Maybe a bit too easy but there was a key moment that almost made my eyes a teeny tiny bit moist…

As fairy tale retellings go, this was one of the better ones. The language is beautiful and at times even poetic but still straight-forward enough for children to understand and appreciate. Maybe some people will disagree with me on this but at least one of the characters in this story seems to be of the same opinion:

“Marty,” Adelaide’s mother warned, “you’ll give them nightmares.”

“Come on, Lizzie.” He shook his head dismissively. “Kids can handle a lot more than you think they can. It’s when they get to be grown up that you have to start worrying.”

Catherynne M. Valente wrote a nice piece about grown-ups underestimating children and thinking that if a book contains too many “big words” it is not appropriate for smaller kids. But it is exactly for those big words that children should be encouraged to read these books. How else are they going to learn anything new? At an age when pretty much everything is a little bit new to them. Read the wonderful full article here: Too Smart for Kids. A Promise to the Readers of Fairyland

THE GOOD: A story of loss and letting go, of the magic inside all of us and what true friendship means. Beautifully written with a very likable heroine and a bittersweet tone to it.
THE BAD: I found the actual fairy tale part of the story less appealing than the beginning. This is a matter of personal taste, however, as the book was written very well throughout.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to young children, may there parents read along with them, enjoy a beautiful tale (and have a pair of ballet shoes at the ready for their little girls)

RATING: 7/10 A very good book with an extra half-point for the illustrations