Book Review: The Grimm Legacy and Coraline

My life took a shockingly Pioneer Woman turn yesterday. I’m wore yoga pants for the second day in a row, I ate an entire pizza minus two slices all by myself for lunch, and I think I have a mild case of agoraphobia. Point in case: I got a little stressed about walking to the grocery store alone, so instead I watched all the 30 Rock Christmas episodes, ate a shameful amount of pizza, and looked at cat pictures on the internet. And then I still didn’t go to the grocery store. I did, however, write this amazing book review, so my slight fear of leaving my house doesn’t really matter in the long run, right?

One of my favorite writer’s, C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can be enjoyed only by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I’m fairly certain he’s right, although it’s hard for me to find the same joy in Goodnight Moon these days as I did in 1989. But when it comes to a story slightly more advanced in vocabulary and concepts, I’m totally on board, especially when they include things like libraries filled with magical objects and creepy alternative realities.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman first drew me in because it seemed to be a new take on old stories: a repository filled with the real objects that inspired the Grimm Brother’s book of fairy tales? Sweet. The magical objects disappearing from under the noses of the librarians and pages, until finally a page goes missing and it’s up to the teenage heroine to find the solution? Sign me up. A teenage love story unfolding before the backdrop of this quirky little story? Eh. That I could live without, but it was kinda sweet.

Elizabeth is a displaced high schooler. Her father has recently remarried to a woman who has two daughters, who vaguely resemble Cinderella’s step mother and her two evil step sister’s, making Elizabeth do all the chores and stealing her best clothes, leaving her with hand-me-downs and very little of her father’s attention. She’s been forced to quit her dance classes and leave her old school, and her best friend has moved to California. Though it’s not overly stressed in the book, she is, in fact, rather alone. Then she writes a history paper about the Brother’s Grimm, whose stories she loves because she shared them with her mother, and her history teacher is so impressed with her work, he offers her a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository. The repository is a library of sorts, filled with objects, some historical, some rare, and some magical, that patrons can borrow. The job gives Elizabeth something to look forward to besides school and chores, and she also makes friends with some of the other pages: Marc, the star of her high school’s basketball team; Anjali, Marc’s smart, pretty girlfriend; and Aaron, who is sometimes mistrustful and rude, and sometimes fun and friendly. But when some of the more powerful Magical objects start to disappear, and then Anjali and the their boss, Dr. Rust, both go missing, the pages are in a race against time to find their friend and stop whatever sinister force is behind the disappearances.

I was really intrigued by the concept behind this story, and I liked how Shulman took something as old and familiar as the magic of the Grimm tales and gave it a new life. How wonderful would it be if you walked into a room and found Cinderella’s real glass slippers, or Snow White’s stepmother’s real magic mirror? I was not disappointed per say, but I did think there were things that could have been better executed. First, the narration was done in first person limited, which is all well and good, except the narrator asks far too many question, especially in the first half of the book. I understand that writing for kids is different that writing for adults, but the target age here is ten and up, old enough to not need to be held by the hand and lead to conclusions, and certainly old enough to do some of the thinking for themselves. Also, our limited narrator has a rather difficult time making up her mind. In one sentence she will state that she sees why Aaron doesn’t trust Marc, and then in the next sentence she’ll be going along with Marc’s ideas. She spends half the book wondering, “Should I trust so-and-so? Should I be lying to my boss? Is this bad? Should I be worried?” Um. Yes, silly girl. You are being followed by a giant evil bird, you should be worried. Your friends are acting suspiciously, you should report that to your boss. I think even the youngest reader will sometimes get frustrated with this rather spineless character who Shulman unfortunately choose to be narrator as well.

My second annoyance was the lazy way Schulman treated some of the more pivotal scenes of magic. I understand that the point of magic is it cannot be explained away or fully understood, and one of the wonderful perks of working with such a well-known tradition as the Grimm stories is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what is happening, your readers will tacitly understand the significance of what is going on. But when you, the author, introduce a new piece of magic- such as walking in the seven league boots from New York City to a magical land and then from that magical place, which is still outside, into a locked, basement room without needing a door or a key- you will need to take a little more time on the narrative. It’s easier to suspend disbelief in the well-known territory of fairy tales than it is with a brand new idea, and in order to ease readers into the new experience without break their interaction with and absorbment in the story, a writer should, in my opinion, take a little time with the new element. Ease the reader into it, like you ease a frog in the boiling pot into hotter and hotter water. Especially in the last climactic action, Shulman rushes too much, like she got caught up in the excitement of her own creation, and seeing the final light at the end of the tunnel rushed into it without giving consideration to the comfort of the ride.

My last frustration is the lack of emotional involvement of the narrator. Elizabeth is the protagonist, this story is all about her and is told from her point of view. We learn that she is mostly ignored by the father she was once close to, has been robbed of both her dear mother and her best friend, as well as everything familiar to her (school, house, neighborhood), and she is left to the whims of a stepmother and step sisters that the author tries to cast in the fairy tale role of evil. There are some deep emotions to be explored here, ones that would be very relevant to a lot of kids today. Schulam has the chance to make a bigger impact that just a fun adventure, but she fails completely to plumb the depths of any of the real issues . Elizabeth gets most emotional over being called nicknames by Snow White’s magic mirror, being jealous of her prettier friend, and getting locked in a basement full of dangerous magical objects (Which, in all fairness, would have gotten me pretty upset too.). All her other emotions come across as opaque, if they are explored at all.

For all its flaws, this was still an enjoyable little story, and it’s concept was pretty unique. If you see it on a library shelf, check it out, but I wouldn’t spend the eight bucks on it unless your youngster who never wants to read is just begging to find this particular title in their stocking.

As for Coraline, I think I missed something.

Yes, that's Cambria's tail. Have you ever tried to take a picture while also trying to keep a cat who insists that she has not received enough attention out of the frame? It's not easy. Or possible.

I finished reading this book several weeks back, but I decided to wait to review it until I re-read it, because I just wasn’t getting the hype.

Coraline is a story about a little girl by that name, who, with her parents, moves into a new house. It is a flat in an old house, sandwiched between other flats populated mostly by eccentric older folks. Coraline goes exploring around the grounds and in the house, where she discovers that there are 14 doors in the house but only 13 of them open up to anything- the 14th door opens only to a brick wall. Except for one night, when Coraline unlocks it again, it opens up to another, identical flat, one filled with better food, more interesting toys, and parents that don’t ignore her while they work. But things are not as wonderful as they first seemed in this Other House. Other Mother wants to keep Coraline all for herself, she wants to change Coraline, and, above all, she does not want Coraline to leave. Our heroine is now faced with a true challenge: she must rescue her parents, the souls of the other children who came to this Other place before her, her friend the black cat, and herself. But there is only one way out of or into this Other world, and Other Mother has the only key.

This is what I’ve found after two reads: this tale wasn’t gruesome, but it was creepy.( The illustrations, however, where creepier than anything in the actual story. Eek!) I liked Coraline herself, with her pluck and her quirks. I understood the lessons here, and I even liked what the author, Neil Gaiman, had to say about appreciating what you have (even if your parents are a little boring sometimes and they like to eat weird food), and about courage and bravery. I liked the passage where Coraline tells the cat that doing something that seems brave is only brave if you’re scared; sometimes you have to do unpleasant things just because that is what you have to do for the people you love. And then she screws up her courage and does what she has to do, even though it is rather unpleasant.

But overall, I just didn’t get the hype. It was well written, it was a good adventure with a great heroine, but it just lacked something for me. I know this doesn’t make for much of a review, but it’s all I’ve got. My final verdict on Coraline? I suppose it’s like looking at good friends boyfriend: you can see why your friend is attracted to him, you may even be friends with him yourself, but he just doesn’t do anything for you. I can see why other people love Coraline, but I just like her in a plutonic way. I think I would have enjoyed this book much more as a child, when it would have seemed more like an adventure. Perhaps I’ll come back to it for another try sometime. Or maybe I just need to watch the movie?

One last note on the Kid Lit front, and the I promise to write about adult books someday soon. (I’ve been a little short on that genre, haven’t I? I’m about 1/4 of the way through with The Map of Time, and I have a few other adult-ish stories waiting in the wings that I’ll get to soon. Pinkie promise.) These little lovelies came in for me this week!

When I was posting about Boy Books, this series came to mind. I first discovered the Karmidee series about six years back, and since then a third installment has been published. It’s been awhile since I read them, or have even been able to find them- I had difficulty finding them in a book store, and I think they are more popular in England since a lot of the Amazon booksellers were British. But, if you are looking for a fresh new adventure for your little man (or little woman! I think they are equally as enjoyable to both genders!), I strongly suggest them! We’ll see how I feel once I finish the whole series (the third book should be arriving any day now), but after my first tour of this rodeo, I found them to be some of my favorite modern fantasies, and I would even consider them a forray into the world of Magical Realism. I first stumbled upon them at my library, so definitely check them out!



Filed under Book Reviews, Books

5 responses to “Book Review: The Grimm Legacy and Coraline

  1. Mary A

    I’m really enjoying reading your blog – you write very well, your reviews are quite good, and I’m glad I can keep up with the life of at least one friend from the days of debate.
    I was just wondering if you’ve ever read the 100 Cupboard Series or any of N.D. Wilson’s other books? I think you might like them.

    • Thanks, Mary! It’s so good to hear from you! I haven’t read 100 Cupboards yet, although it has caught my eye. Now that you’ve recommended them though, I’ll definitely have to pick up the first one soon!

  2. Thanks for the Grimm Review. 🙂 I agree about Corraline though…not a fave. I did LOVE The Graveyard Book by NG though…

    • I’ll have to check out The Graveyard Book. I’m glad I’m not the only one who isn’t in love with Coraline- I felt like that one kid in English class who hated Pride and Prejudice and everyone else secretly thinks they’re crazy!

  3. These reviews were fun to read because you easily mix with just a touch things about your life, like Cambria and the photo, phobias, and pizza overeating.

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