Once Upon a Time When the Princess Rescued the Prince, by Rosemary Lake (Dragon Tree Press, 2002)

I’m of mixed opinions where Once Upon a Time… is concerned. On the one hand, I really, really, really wanted to like this. I am a sucker for retold fairy tales; nothing draws me to a book quicker than the claim that it’s based on a fairy tale, especially the ones that haven’t been done to death by Disney. I also like fairy tales with a twist, where the heroine is just as clever and persistent and resourceful and capable of success as the hero. So the thought of a collection of fairy tales with “new, smart, strong heroines” tickled my fancy. Unfortunately, I was left feeling kind of, well, eh, after reading this one.

Don’t get me wrong. Rosemary Lake knows what she’s doing in terms of research and source material; the resource notes after every tale and the bibliography show that she’s drawn inspiration from a wide variety of sources, and her ability to tailor stories to a fourth grade reading level is quite respectable. Her retellings of “The Glass Mountain,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Boy Who Could Not Shudder” and others really is inspired. Sometimes she retells a story fairly close to the original, sometimes she adds new elements and makes the main character female, sometimes she cobbles together multiple stories, and sometimes she diverges significantly. I took a peek at her Web site and was impressed by the sheer number and variety of stories available, the resource links, the notations linking each story to specific character traits or special purposes, and the overall usefulness of the site for educators and parents.

So what’s my problem? I think the stories are too easy. Too quick, too light, too much like the original material in terms of slaphazard character motivation and lack of depth, and well… they just lack the things I’ve come to look for in retold fairy tales. I’m worried that Lake may be aiming too low in terms of reader abilities; after all, these are the same kids reading Harry Potter. Certainly it’s not expecting too much of them to add a little more complexity to the stories. I think the kids can take the challenge.

So the bottom line is that as useful, interesting, and downright neat as Once Upon a Time… may be, it just didn’t do much for me. As a researcher and folklorist, Lake is clearly quite good. As a storyteller, she needs to challenge her audience a little more. But that’s just my opinion. If I can find an average fourth grader to use as a test subject, I may be back with more. Ultimately, I’m going to recommend this, with reservations. I think Lake is on the right track, but I also think that the stories could be told in a stronger way.

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