Archive | August, 2010

“As strong as she was fair”

31 Aug

I’ve been saving this book for a special day, and as my little sister B starts junior high tomorrow, I think now is an opportune moment!

And example of Trina Schart Hyman's legendary illustrations!

Donald J. Sobol is best-known for authoring the Encyclopedia Brown series, but in 1970, he published a book entitled Greta the Strong. It follows the adventures of a peasant maiden in Arthurian England who possess inhuman strength (at one point she carries a warhorse on her shoulders) and is unfailingly polite. She is chosen by Sir Porthal, the only surviving knight of the Round Table, to become a champion for good, worthy enough to receive the legendary Excalibur.

Greta has many adventures – she defeats the Knight of the Sea, slays a giant so that he does not fall, wrestles an evil magician, and frees captured damsels like it’s her job. But more importantly, she also makes mistakes. She slays a kind dragon, is cursed by her brothers, and knocks out her true love, Sir Evren. Mostly this happens because of her politeness and desire to do good – though the Lady of the Lake grants her Excalibur because she is the purest knight in the world, what this essentially means is that she can be pretty darn gullible.

Her trouble always seems to stem from her femininity. At the opening of the story, Greta triumphs over each of her four brothers in their areas of martial expertise (swordplay, archery, jousting, and wrestling) to win Sir Porthal’s favor, but they perceive it as an insult, and conspire to curse her. Sir Evren, though initially smitten, is horrified when he realizes that Greta is stronger than he, sure that she could hurt him if she were ever angry, and thus leaves her. Constantly, she is underestimated or prejudiced against, and while she occasionally uses her gender as a disguise, it always hampers her adventures. At the end of the story [SPOILER] she throws off her armor in favor of wedded bliss with Sir Evren, and is thus hampered even by her author’s attention to her sex.

But, nevertheless, Greta represents a kind of heroine we’ve never seen before. She exists in a land of Arthurian legend peopled by monsters and enchantresses, but holds her own in a genre where female knights are pretty much non-existent – Arthurian women are beautiful queens or beautiful sorceresses, not knights. But Greta is (clearly) strong, noble, and smart: at the end when she is offered Excalibur, she refuses it, saying: “Never by the sword have men found peace and justice, not in Arthur’s day nor in mine nor in days unborn.” A remarkably clear-sighted prophecy (especially after she’s just spent the entire book waving a sword herself) that still rings true today.

Sobol masters the cadence of Arthurian myths, and Greta the Strong may as well come from Sir Thomas Malory or Geoffrey of Monmouth. He has imagined a woman onto a scene dominated entirely by men, then and today, and she’s a legendary B.A. to boot! This book can be hard to get a hold of, but it’s a great story and the illustrations by the great Trina Schart Hyman are not to be missed!


Those March girls

30 Aug

The (little) women of the March family have held the standard for female awesomeness in classic literature since Moll Flanders or Jane Eyre. They run the gamut – quiet Beth, willful Amy, vivacious Jo, accomplished Meg, and all held together by the masterful Marmee – but they are all equally comprised of both failings and triumphs. But through fights, poverty, death, and marriage, they stay together and strong. Originally published in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is followed by two sequels: Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. The 1994 movie version is worth a look as well!

One of the most engaging attributes of the book is that it traces the lives of the sisters from adolescence to maturity, and readers are brought along as the girls learn about the world and about themselves. Jo grows in her writing and her confidence, Meg in her aspirations and love, Beth her quiet strength, and Amy from impetuous girl to self-aware woman. It’s not an easy or painless road, but it doesn’t beat down any of them. Rather, it guides them to re-examine their values and to decide what is really most important.

My copy of Little Women bears an inscription to my mother from her 6th grade teacher in 1967, which stands testament to both the importance and accessibility of this book. The struggles that the Marches face – peer pressure, sexism, poverty, loss of a loved one – remain contemporary today, and the age and personality range of the sisters ensures that each reader will find something familiar to grab onto. For me, it was the passionate (some might say rash) natures of Amy and Jo that provided endless entertainment: waltzing in the burned dress, buying limes, selling hair, suffering crotchety Aunt March, their artistic aspirations and dealings with Laurie. They are unfailing in their self-certainty, whether they be wrong or right, and never ever docile. But I’ve also been shy Beth or let vanity get the best of me like Meg.

The most important point that this book makes is that even if you have the best of intentions, you will make some pretty terrible mistakes in your life. It’s inevitable, and the only thing you can do is to pick up the pieces and keep going on. For the March sisters, they always have each other to help and to offer advice in future. Never let it be said that the girls let their circumstances get them down. Women they are all, but “little” they are not!

One of the more recent cover designs

“Corpus Bones! I utterly loathe my life.”

28 Aug

Catherine Called Birdy may be the most entertaining children’s book to be published since… ever. It was Karen Cushman’s first YA novel, and it won the Newbery in 1995. I knew I was sunk when I read the first entry by our intrepid narrator, fourteen year-old Catherine (called Little Bird or Birdy):

“12th Day of September. I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.”

Living in a rural England in 1290 has its own challenges – fleas in the rushes, no indoor plumbing, tangling your spinning. But as the daughter of, as Birdy puts it: “a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen,” she is up for sale as a wife – and her father is intent on marrying her off as soon as possible, no matter how detestable (re: old, unclean, rude, fat, etc) the potential groom, so long as he be rich. But Birdy is clever and stubborn, and determined not to be married off to any of the wealthy but disagreeable suitors that come calling, and sends them off without a sweat.

Birdy is a hilarious narrator, with a professed fascination with a macabre that will squick your stomach – after receiving a book on saint’s days, she delights in prefacing her entries with the name and grisly manner of martyrdom of that day’s saint. I wish I could fit in more of her quotes and antics, but you’ll have to read them! Let me just say that in the course of the book, she debates which exclamatory curse is best, burns down an outhouse with her suitor in it, saves a dancing bear, and takes part in a spitting contest during Lent. For a young woman who is (by our standards) uneducated, uncultured, and unclean, her observations are astute and insightful, and while she loathes her suitors unequivocally and is quick to judge, she never gives up. Her position in medieval society is tenuous, but she manages to sneak out of every fiasco with a wink and a grin like it’s no problem!

Not your average damsel in distress...

While this book is intended for younger-grade readers, Birdy’s quick wit and sharp tongue will entertain you whatever your age. Furthermore, Cushman’s grasp of medieval life is as fascinating as it is gross, and all of it accurate! This book has been, and still remains, one of my favorites of all time, and keep an eye out for Cushman’s newest book, Alchemy and Maggy Swann, published this year by Clarion Books.

Swan Lake Retold

26 Aug

The Black Swan is one of Mercedes Lackey’s clever retellings of old fairytales, Swan Lake in particular. It retells the classic story from the perspective of Odile, generally considered the equally conniving daughter of the evil sorcerer von Rothbart. However in Lackey’s version, Odile is an intelligent girl and promising sorceress, desperate only for her aloof father’s love. She is charged with the care of the flock of bewitched swan maidens, which is headed by Odette: the normal heroine of the story. Though she first believes the swan maidens justly imprisoned, Odile comes to respect and gradually befriend them, mainly through Odette. Thus when the moment of treachery occurs and Odile is unwittingly used in Odette’s betrayal, she seizes her power to defeat her father’s evil spell and save the formerly-doomed lovers.

This version of the tale gives voice to the silent character of Odile, who has been equally manipulated by von Rothbart. While it follows the traditional path of the story – the moonlight meeting with Prince Siegfried, the vow of eternal love, the disguised Odile, Siegfried’s mistaken pledge that betrays Odette, the lovers’ suicidal plunge into the lake, von Rothbart’s death – that plot is not the point of interest. What is really important is Odile’s transformation from unsure and inexperienced daughter who prefers the quiet shadows, to strong and independent sorceress prepared to stand up for what is right. Her slow realization of her father’s treachery is painful, but it leaves her vindicated and powerful rather than depressed.

The interplay between Odile and Odette is the fulcrum on which the transformation depends. Odette is beautiful, remote, and threatening to the quiet Odile, but her power over the rest of the flock and her bravery in standing up to von Rothbart earn Odile’s grudging respect. In return, Odette recognizes that Odile is cut from a different cloth than her father and opens up the new possibility of friends for the lonely sorcerer’s daughter. In the crucial moment, it is the bond between the two women that drives Odile to action.

Odile, who in the original ballet appears only in the scene where she is disguised as Odette, is expanded into a rich character who grows even stronger as she comes into her own power. In fact, the focus shifts from Siegfried’s actions/the love plot entirely onto the interplay between the two women. Girl power!

For more (pickychick approved) fairytale retellings, check out:

– Mercedes Lackey

– Robin McKinley

– Gail Carson Levine

– Marion Zimmer Bradley

– Gregory Maguire

– Shannon Hale

– Frank Beddor


25 Aug

Yesterday, one of the simultaneously least and most talked-about books was released to the general public: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. This book follows The Hunger Games (which we reviewed on August 10) and the middle book Catching Fire – which is definitely also worth a read, though not touched on in the blog. While the trilogy has been getting darker with each book, Mockingjay takes the cake. Things go from bad to worse in rapid succession, and the threshold for what Katniss can stand is continually tested. But as the cover design depicts, the mockingjay is no longer just a symbol shared in secret. The mockingjay is now a living, breathing, fighting creature. It is all real now – no longer just a “game.” The war is happening.

But that may be the hardest part of the story. Because as Katniss herself says, “we’re still in the game.” Now her entire world has become the arena. She isn’t a general, or a president, or anyone who decides the rules. In the end she is just a pawn, constantly scrambling to stay ahead of annihilation – from what quarter, she never knows. Time and time again she is reminded of the fact that while she has become a figurehead with the ability to inspire the success of the rebel forces, she has no actual power or control over what happens.

Katniss’s battle is the mediation between her long- and short-term goals: to protect her family and friends in the immediate present (volunteering for Prim, protecting Gale from the whipping, rescuing Peeta) or to protect them in the future (the love story with Peeta, assuming the role of Mockingjay) – between humanity and peace. None of Katniss’s choices have an easy answer, some of them have no answer at all, but she still must choose. She steps up because she has to, and she does her best with it, though the cost to her soul is unimaginable. The PTSD that she and her fellow victors struggle with is in many ways the most harrowing aspect of the book, and the link between the Hunger Games and the actual war is not inconsequential. It speaks about the cost of war in her world of Panem, but in ours as well.

Though Collins puts Katniss through every trial imaginable, she knows how to write a compelling story – I read each book in this series in one sitting, mainly because I couldn’t drag myself away. And Collins at least offers us hope at the end, and a rest for her weary heroine. Highly recommended, but definitely for higher-grade readers.

SPOILER QUESTIONS (read only if you’ve read the book yourself): What did you all think of the ending? Of Katniss’s ultimate happy ending with Peeta instead of Gale? Of the bombing and Prim’s death? Of the new post-revolution world? Of Katniss’s vote in favor of new Hunger Games?

All hands on deck!

24 Aug

…no post today, as pickychick is busy reading Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay! Check in tomorrow for our thoughts!

Sophie Hatter, this blog’s oldest heroine

23 Aug

Diana Wynne Jones is a prolific YA author, and my favorite of her books is Howl’s Moving Castle. This story is so incredibly complex, I’ve attempt to trim down the plot to its major points for clarity’s sake.

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three stepsisters, which is a very unfortunate position in stories. She ends up on the business end of a wicked witch’s spell and is turned into an old woman. Sophie runs off to seek her fortune, and instead ends up as the Wizard Howl’s cleaning lady. Howl is rumored to eat the hearts of beautiful young women, but Sophie just finds him to be an overly dramatic, vain, and very dirty young man – but one who takes her in anyway. Cue a missing prince, rumors of war, the wicked witch (again), a fire demon or two, a scarecrow, a dog-man, lots of disguises, lots of apprentices, 203948302 spells, some falling stars, and a castle that moves. There isn’t so much of a plot climax as an extended series of peaks – a mountain range really.

When the story opens, Sophie is resigned to her depressing fate as an eldest sister, but the spell that turns her into an old woman ends up removing her inhibitions (after all, how much worse could it get?) and she grows a spine and a double-serving of sass. Her no-nonsense, get-things-done, take-no-crap attitude is both refreshing and funny, and it pairs well with Howl’s foppish (though still loveable) moods and antics. She never worries about trying to please anyone but herself, and that honest selfishness becomes a point of power. Sophie is all about taking your lemons and making lemonade! It would be easy for her to mope about and bemoan her fate, but instead, she has adventures, finds her spirit, and kicks some butt, like a true heroine.

Favorite moments include: when Howl mopes over a bad day by oozing green slime, Sophie venting her rage with particularly potent weed-killer, the scene in which Sophie and Michael try to catch a falling star, the Wales interlude, and Howl’s freak out about his hair-dye.

A poster for the movie - Miyazaki's vision is much more dynamic than 99% of the book covers

I also recommend the well-done (though significantly different) movie version by Hayao Miyazaki.