Author: Hans Christian Andersen/Translator: Anthea Bell
Illustrator: Chihiro Iwasaki
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Ever since she was small, red shoes have been an obsession for Karen, a fascination that society frowns upon as quite improper. And yet, she can’t seem to give up her shiny new red shoes; they make her feel beautiful, make her feel like dancing. But when she chooses beauty and lightheartedness over loyalty and love, Karen finds herself cursed to dance and dance and dance her life away in those beautiful, dangerous red shoes. And the cost to escape this curse may be greater than any she could have imagined.
I know Hans Christian Andersen is something of a “classic” author, and of course I’ve heard his name all my life, but I think the extent of my actual exposure to his writing has been basically one poor retelling of The Little Match Girl and an endless string of poorly illustrated versions of The Ugly Duckling. So reading The Red Shoes was an interesting cultural experience for me, if only to gain greater exposure to this renowned author. The story is certainly classic fairy tale material: morally weighted, dark, macabre even at times. This is one of those things that always seems to get glossed over in the cheesy children’s retellings; most true fairy tales are really dark and dangerous, and plenty of them don’t end happily ever after, whatever we may wish. The Red Shoes actually does get, well, a non-tragic ending at least, although it’s awfully moralizing by the end. The whole story is really quite weighty in that regard, which I suppose is largely a reflection of the age and culture in which Andersen was writing. Still, it’s an interesting tale, and Bell’s translation is wonderful. (I actually seek out books translated by her, regardless of the original author, because I love her translation work!) And even if you don’t read this for the story itself, I would recommend browsing through the book for the pictures alone–Iwasaki’s watercolors are gorgeous in every detail. I can’t say The Red Shoes is a favorite of mine, but it certainly was worth the short time it took to read (for the story, the cultural experience, and especially for the art). Recommendation: pick it up at the library or buy used if possible.
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Also published as Wilkin’s Tooth
My rating: 5 of 5
Jess and Frank opened Own Back Ltd. when their parents stopped their allowance for the summer. It seemed like a clever idea at the time. But when their first customer is the town bully–the very person they were hoping to initiate revenge upon!–they begin to rethink their idea. Not that it’s so easy to back out at that point; Buster would probably beat them up if they tried. Soon, however, they find themselves way out of their depth, frighteningly so. The two siblings would gladly retire from the revenge business entirely–if only they can make things right first.
As always, Diana Wynne Jones brings a creative, unique tale in Witch’s Business. The entire story is a sort of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie chain of events, with attempts to solve one problem leading right into new problems, again and again. It really is quite the cautionary tale, although most folks contemplating revenge are unlikely to end up in as much trouble as Frank, Jess, and their friends encounter with their local witch. As expected of Jones’ writing, the characters, prose, and plot are all excellent. I really can’t praise her writing style in general enough. I particularly liked, in this story, that 1) the characters’ presuppositions about one another are challenged, and 2) they end up becoming friends with people they would never have considered interacting with before the events unfolded. The growing relationships are quite interesting, and I think the story’s a good challenge to us all in regards to those two items. I also enjoyed the slightly old-fashioned country setting; it’s the sort of place where it seems like anything could happen. Which it did. Witch’s Business is an ideal adventure/fantasy/slice-of-life story for upper elementary to high-school readers, but even better, it’s the sort of tale that just about anyone of any age can enjoy. Highly recommended.
Author: Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5
Kevin Midas knows what it is to be the kid everyone else picks on. It seems to be his lot in life to be the favored punching bag of the all-school bully. So it’s no surprise when a scuffle during the class camping trip (seriously, what kind of teacher takes their class on a camping trip?!) ends in Kevin’s glasses being totally destroyed. When a teacher’s spooky campfire tale leads to Kevin and his best friend Josh climbing the mountain nearby though, things become a bit more surprising. At the very top, Kevin discovers a sleek pair of glasses, just like they were waiting for him. And not only do those glasses fit his prescription perfectly, they instantly make him feel cooler, more confident. But that’s not all they can do, as he’s about to find out. . . .
I love Shusterman’s writing–always original, refreshing, and meaningful. The Eyes of Kid Midas has the feeling of a cautionary tale or a fable without ever being demeaning or pedantic. It reads like an exciting middle-grade slice-of-life adventure with a crazy fantasy element thrown in . . . except that the further you read, the more you get the picture that stuff and power just aren’t worth as much as we sometimes think they are. The costs of seeking them too much are just too high, as Kevin quickly found out. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t addictive–another thing Kevin discovers to his horror. This story does get quite terrifyingly end-of-the-world disaster-zone towards the end, but it’s all middle-grade appropriate in tone. The characters are well-written, although more of the focus in this story seems to be on the plot; it’s still definitely a plot that wouldn’t have developed as it did unless the characters were who they are, that much is obvious. I don’t think I liked The Eyes of Kid Midas quite as much as I have liked some of Shusterman’s other stories, but it’s still an excellent read and one I’d definitely recommend.
Author/Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
Pierre was a little boy who couldn’t be bothered to care about anything. His apathy was such a problem that his parents really didn’t know what to do with him . . . to the extent that they eventually left him to his own devices. One day when Pierre is by himself, still not caring, something awful happens. In fact, that something is so awful that Pierre might never not care again–assuming he survives the experience.
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale is and is not what I would expect from Sendak’s writing. Really, it’s a fable of sorts–a 5-chapter easy-reader tale with a moral. I think it definitely shows its age (copyright 1962), but it’s almost as though it’s intentionally old-fashioned. The art is rough, stylized pen drawings with partial colorization–again, old-fashioned looking, but full of character as well. And the story fits along those same lines: wry, old-fashioned, simple, but rather quirky. I think the use of some verse and some straight prose, sort of mixed together, gives the tale an interesting flow. I think Pierre would be an interesting story for children who are just learning to read to try for themselves, and also a funny reminder for us all to care.