The Red-Hooded Dancing Princess of Sherwood Forest

I love retellings of classic fairytales. There was a time when I seriously considered retelling Little Red Riding Hood in a sci-fi setting. (Don’t worry, those days are gone.) It should come as no surprise, then, that I was intrigued by Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Silver Woods. New York Times bestselling author, George joins the tradition of Shakespeare and Gail Carson Levine as she ties together elements of Little Red Riding Hood, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Robin Hood, and even old vampire legends. I won’t spoil the intrigue by pointing out all the parallels; you should do that part yourself.

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My friend characterized this cover as “deliciously creepy.” Turns out the story matches!

Still, I must give a brief synopsis, one that will hardly do the story justice. Princess Petunia and her sisters are plagued by nightmares of parties in the Kingdom Under Stone, where they were forced to spend nights dancing until their shoes wore out. As the nightmares become more and more real, they realize that the gates must be sealed again. The honorable outlaw, Oliver, finds himself emotionally and morally entangled in Petunia’s fate, and decides to help–even if it means giving his life.

But, really, it’s so much more than that. There’s history and romance and intrigue, magic and secrets and shadows that act like men. There are hints that made my brain itch. It’s rich with references to the classics, and yet a tale entirely its own.

My only criticism–and it’s hardly that–is the ending. Maybe I’m “too old” for this book, or maybe I’ve been ruined by authors who like to destroy their readers’ (or viewers’) souls. But the ending was just so… happy. I wanted to be relieved. Really, I did. But I couldn’t believe it. Everyone lives (everyone important, anyways). Everyone lives, gets married, and has babies. I was denied the catharsis of tragedy. All the dramatic tension of the big battle–and it’s just supposed to vanish. Nothing breaks. It’s not a bad thing if you like and expect happy endings. It’s even a well-done happy ending, not overly sappy or anything.

Twirly’s Top Ten: Kid Book Edition

I don’t remember much about elementary school (pathetic, I know). I remember the names of all of my teachers, the Enya song we listened to while doing our morning math facts in fourth grade, and the diorama I made of a Native American wigwam. But what I remember most is library time.

The first time my teacher set us loose in the library, it was Candy Land. I once walked around, reverently dragging my fingers along the spines of books that I just couldn’t wait to read. Stacks of books left with me, to be returned the next week. I once waited in line in that very library to get an Arthur book signed by one of the illustrators. It was a very special place.

It’s been said that the stories you read as a child shape you in ways that other books cannot. I read so many books as a child, was influenced by so many voices, and am better for it.

So, without further ado–and in no particular order–my favorite books (and series) from childhood:

1. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling) – I know what you’re thinking. “What a cop out.” I am part of the “Harry Potter generation.” I eagerly waited for each book to be released. I stayed up all night to read them so that they couldn’t be spoiled for me the next day. But it’s more than that. I’m reading them again, and am realizing what a genius J.K. Rowling is. The later books are long, yes, but every detail is vital. She draws on a rich background of real mythology, and combines them with her own fiction. The whole series has a distinct structure. I’ll stop fan-girling now, except to say that this series is worth re-reading as an adult.

2. Redwall and associated titles (Brian Jacques) – Many of my friends remember Redwall as a cartoon series that ran on PBS, the website for which can be found here. At the end of each episode, author Brian Jacques would introduce himself and encourage viewers to read the books. Jacques was prolific in his life, but the series came to an end with his passing in 2011. I read a number of them on long car rides and rainy days, never able to get enough of Matthias, Lord Brocktree, or Martin the Warrior. Be warned: some of these books are not for the faint of heart.

3. Magic Attic Club series (multiple authors) – Perhaps the most girly on this list, these books followed the adventures of a group of girls who discover a golden key to their neighbor’s attic. From there, they find costumes, and a mirror that takes them back in time. I remember them being fun stories that got my imagination running, which is always ideal for readers of all ages.

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (William Steig) – Let’s be honest: I haven’t read this book since I was in third grade, and even then it was read to me. I don’t remember a lot about the plot, but I know that the title and author have stuck with me for over a decade. That says something, doesn’t it?

5. The Princess Tales (or anything else by Gail Carson Levine) – Another genius, Levine takes classic fairytales and gives them her own flair. I owe my childhood desire to be a princess to her, not Disney. She’s most famous for her award-winning Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella; the series mentioned above is a collection of shorter, equally worthy works.

6. Little House on the Prairie series (Laura Ingalls Wilder) – Many a book report–complete with poorly drawn illustrations–do I owe to Ms. Wilder. She opened my mind to the trials of living in a different time, a different place–even in the side of a hill. A more-than-worthy replacement for the Captain Underpants series, if I may say so.

7. Frindle (Andrew Clements) – Ah, Frindle. The story of a boy who makes up a word that gets into the dictionary. I always found this story inspiring, probably because it was my first introduction to the versatility of language, the way that it could change and grow like a living thing. At the same time, it showed me how each and every word in English has a backstory, a history. I always found that beautiful. Clements is also responsible for a number of other worthy titles.

8. Magic Tree House series (Mary Pope Osborne) – I am proud to claim responsibility for getting my nephews hooked on these books. Jack and Annie of Frog Creek Woods, Pennsylvania stumble across a treehouse that takes them back in time. They participate in major historical events–the building of the Eiffel Tower, Pompeii, even the first Olympics! If you’re looking for books that are fun and educational, look no further. They might be formulaic to adult ears, but children love learning from them. Don’t believe me? The website has fun quizzes that my nephew aced at age five.

9. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) – Every child ought to be introduced to a few of the classics. Alcott’s story of a family of daughters was perfect for me.

10. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Beverly Cleary) – I enjoyed all the books about Ramona Quimby. She was a quirky girl my own age, with a big sister. I especially enjoyed her teacher, Mrs. Whaley–whose name was “Whale” with a Y for a tale!

Honorable mention goes to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, a book that I never actually read, but did make up a song about to drive my sister crazy.

What were your favorite books in elementary school?

Intelligencers and Assassins

-4I have an unfortunate proclivity towards British things–or, I should say, things written by British people. Literature, television, it’s all the same, really. (I should point out that this is only unfortunate because British authors seem less afraid of breaking their audiences’ hearts.) Which is why it came as little surprise when I found myself drawn to Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.

Ms. Carriger tosses readers into the upper classes of a delightfully steampunk world. (For those of you who aren’t aware, “steampunk,” so far as I can tell, translates roughly into a Victorian England setting infused with vampires, werewolves, and the occasional mechanical being.) It is through this world that we follow one Sophronia Angelina Temminnick, a country girl of considerable social class, who occupies her time reading, climbing, and taking apart dumbwaiters. She can’t even curtsy properly. Mrs. Temminnick, at her wits end, decides to send Sophronia to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

Little does she know that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s prepares girls to finish in a… different way.

And so readers are whisked alongside Sophronia, who is constantly getting into trouble while studying proper graces and subversive tactics in her floating boarding school. She’s joined along the way by professors, friends, a child who is gifted with inventing things, a boiler worker, a mechanical dog, and a demoted upperclasswoman who turns out to be Sophronia’s rival. (Not to mention the mysterious Picklemen and flywaymen.) Together, they enter a race to uncover the “prototype.”

And a delightful race it is. Carriger does an excellent job dropping hints about the setting without droning on for pages over minutia, and has a gift for characterization. Each piece of her story is connected in the larger whole; there are very few loose ends. For example, in the beginning of the story, Sophronia is quoted saying,

“But I don’t want to be a vampire drone… They’ll suck my blood and make me wear only the latest fashions.” (6)

It’s a one-off phrase that would be easy to miss if it wasn’t so comical. But later, at the school, Sophronia meets a man–one Professor Braithwope–who is said to wear the “very latest in evening attire,” not to mention that

He had a funny way of talking around his teeth. (67)

Further hints are dropped, and it soon becomes obvious that this man is–you guessed it–a vampire.

Her skill for subtle characterization isn’t limited to the supernatural beings in the story. In a few passages, Sophronia makes note of her classmates’ proclivities–sometimes about activities and how to use their time, and sometimes about what stick to use during knife lessons. It seems innocuous at the time, but Carriger brings them to bear later on.

Not all of the loose ends are tied at the close of the story–and I’m glad. Carriger has created a delightfully bright and gritty world, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next in the series–Curtsies and Conspiracies.

I’ll leave with one final thought: a favorite quote from the book–

“No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear.” (128)

English Teachers in Cinema

Today in the world of Twirly Writes, I have a very embarrassing confession to make. Remember that time when I talked about how I used to have a crush on Chris Kratt? This is going to be a lot like that.

So. Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls. (Why? Because it’s on Netflix and it’s an awesome show. Not pertinent.) In the first season, Lorelai dates a man named Max Medina. He’s an English teacher–her daughter’s English teacher, to be exact. So they date and there’s drama and hijinx ensue and the rest is not the point. The point is that Max is dreamy.

Maybe it’s his passion or his brain or his collection of gorgeous, leather-bound books–I don’t know. All I know is that Max and I would get along in real life.

This is where the embarrassing part starts. You see… Max isn’t the first on-screen English teacher that I’ve had a thing for.

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Yes, Max; yes, it is.

Can I get a show of hands for how many people remember the movie Never Been Kissed? It was a cute, terrible movie in which Drew Barrymore is a journalist who goes undercover as a high school student and ends up falling for her English teacher who is played by one Michael Vartan. (You might remember him as Vaughn on Alias.) The whole plotline was really stupid and a little creepy, but this guy kind of made it worth it.

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Come on. You’d want to spend two hours staring at this guy too.

But it’s weird. Because, you see, I’ve never been into a teacher in real life. Not even an English teacher. (Okay, almost once in college, but that doesn’t count. I was in a bad way.) Truthfully, I don’t even find bookish guys that attractive. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But it’s true. I have one guy friend who I’ll take recommendations from, but we were never a thing. My husband has never even read Harry Potter.

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that all this comes from idealism. We all have ideas about what we think we want until we’re confronted with it in real life. I’ve met a few knowledgable, friendly, passionate, well-read guys with impressive book collections–and I never fell for one of them.

Then again, I might be attracted to cinematic English teachers because we all end up marrying our parents.

 

Okay, okay. My dad doesn’t teach English. But he is a teacher and he does read a lot.

 

Reputable Thoughts on a Disreputable History

-2Frankie Landau-Banks is a sophomore at Alabaster boarding school in Massachusetts, and she is entirely too smart for her own good. It’s her best kept secret; people are constantly underestimating her, especially her family. And it’s driving her insane.

So begins The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (by E. Lockhart).

The story of how Frankie infiltrates and anonymously takes over the Basset Hounds–an all-boys secret society that her senior boyfriend is co-president of, and that her Old Boy father was a part of during the Golden Days–is engaging and funny. The foreboding as she teeters at the top of the heap is palpable. We know the ending from the first chapter, but can’t help loving the ride.

Like many high school sophomores, Frankie is prone to obsession. At times it’s harmless; her quirk for P.G. Wodehouse’s imaginary neglected positives (“whelmed,” as opposed to “overwhelmed” or “underwhelmed”) is cute. Her obsession with the panopticon, meanwhile–that is, the feeling that the rule makers are always watching, even when they cannot possibly see the rule breakers–might be what drives her to the top, and over the edge.

For such an intelligent girl, Frankie has unfortunate taste in men. Her first boyfriend cheated on her. The second treats her like a child. And there’s Alpha–co-president of the Bassets, a bit of a rebel, whose identity she assumes in her rise to power–with whom she clearly shares a connection. Their relationship never resolves itself, which is irksome. It’s one of the many unanswered questions at the end of the story. It’s unsatisfying in a bittersweet sort of way, and yet it couldn’t have gone any differently.

On Twitter

Twitter is a funny thing.

I never intended to get a Twitter. It just sort of happened with the big-girl blog thing. I’m still figuring out how to use it, actually. It’s like releasing pithy witticisms out into the void, and hoping a random stranger hears you and likes what you’ve been shouting.

But the weirdest thing about Twitter, to me, is that it fosters artificial relationships between me and random celebrities that I’ve never met. I’ve been Tweeted at (is that proper grammar?) by two famous people now, and followed by one. And, each time, I freaked out. It was so exciting! But… why? Am I more valid as a human being because I got two “thank you” Tweets from J. August Richards? Does this mean that we’re friends now? Of course not. It’s comical, really.

Natalie Lloyd Tweeting at me is a different story. She actually read my review of her charming book (it seems) and she liked it. When an established author likes what you said about their work, it’s reasonable to be excited. Right?

Peeling Back Fear

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Joan Bauer’s Peeled opens on a sleepy apple growing town in New York. The biggest news in town is the sudden sickness and subsequent replacement of the local beauty pageant winner–until the alleged haunting of Ludlow house makes headlines. Enter Hildy Biddle, a high school journalist with a passion for sniffing out the truth. A passion inherited from her late father.

As the local newspaper turns to sensationalism and fear mongering to sell copies, Hildy and her high school paper learn the value–and danger–of publishing the facts. The story is ripe with apple punnery and has light undertones of faith, while the cast is punctuated with a gruff ex-journalist and a Polish woman who stood up to a corrupt government.

There was a time when I, like Hildy, thought I wanted to be a journalist. After a lot of thought, reading, talking to journalists, and a semester on my college’s newspaper, I think Hildy is better suited to it than I am. While I love the writing and interviewing, I am less passionate about chasing leads and pulling all-nighters to make a deadline. Freelance feature writing might be more my style. Call me a “puff writer.” It is what it is.

That said, I admire Hildy. She’s dedicated, persistent, and a good reporter. Plus, she’s brave. I had one controversial piece in my college paper and–while thrilling–it was exhausting. The director of residence life just about had a fit when he read it. (In my defense, I’m not sure how thoroughly he read it. I went out of my way to make him look good.) Hildy, meanwhile, blazes forward–despite threats–to expose a story that’s bigger than any Apple Blossom Queen. It takes a very special person to do that, even after high school.

We can’t all be Howie Carr, but Hildy might just grow up to rival him.

 

Didn’t get that reference? Go pick up The Brothers Bulger. Then we can talk about terrifying journalism.

Clothes and Curves

This weekend, my husband took me shopping. It was very sweet , actually; he tricked me into thinking that we were shopping for him, when in fact he wanted to buy me some jewelry for Valentine’s Day. But that’s not the point of this story.

I tried on a pencil skirt. I’ve never tried on a pencil skirt before, on account of my hips, but I always liked how they look on actresses, and even my sister.

But I’m curvy. And short.

There are a thousand websites for women like me, ones that tell me what I can and cannot wear. But none of them agree. Some say that I can rock the pencil skirt with a peplum top (a look I love), while some encourage me to play it safe in fit-and-flare dresses. Some of them tell me to avoid horizontal stripes; others tell me to defy “the man” and wear them anyways. The mixed signals leave me confused. I want to try new things, but I don’t want to look stupid or draw attention to unflattering areas. So I tried the skirt.

And, you know what? I didn’t hate it.

I didn’t love it enough to buy it, but I didn’t hate it, either. I even bought a pair of skinny jeans (which require a belt, given my wonky proportions).

That got me thinking: I don’t need to be afraid to try new looks. The worst that can happen is that I try on an article of clothing, hate it, and then don’t buy it. I may not be a little girl, but I’m still healthy, overall. I don’t like hating my body. I don’t like looking at websites, magazines, and other women and saying, “Oh, that outfit is so cute! It would look like crap on me, though.”

I hate that having “healthy body image” means that I am constantly insulting my body and wanting to change it–or trying to hide it. So what if I’m not ideal? I could stand to lose a little weight. I have a big butt and wide thighs. My feet are possibly my best feature. My hips make small spaces difficult to maneuver. I’m a size 12 petite, or a 15 in some juniors sizes.

But you know what? I may be squishy, but I like who I am. I like how I feel when I’m writing or reading. I like the way I look and feel while swing dancing. I like the way I treat other people, overall. I even like the clothes I choose to dress myself in.

How I look is important, and so is taking care of my body. But why take care of something that you don’t even like? Today, I choose to not only accept my body, but learn to like and appreciate it. I won’t be ashamed anymore.

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I didn’t like this picture initially, because of my stomach rolls. I’m okay with it now. Credit: Annmarie Swift Photography 2014

 

An Open Letter to Future Brides

A little while ago, one of my high school friends got engaged. I was laying awake a few nights after the couple told me, and I realized that nobody prepared me for the hard parts of being engaged. In my head it was supposed to be all lace and wine, and all the hard stuff just fell into place. Everyone was at my disposal, and nobody felt put-upon or frustrated. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I hated being engaged. I knew from her fiance that, already, days in, engagement was not treating my friend particularly well. So I wrote her this letter. I’ve modified it a little bit, and left the names open for filling, but the message is still the same–and it’s one that I think every future bride needs to hear.

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Credit: Annmarie Swift Photography 2014

Dear [your name here],

You’re engaged! Hurrah! This is where it all begins. Your life together. The planning, venue hunting, cake tasting, and dress shopping. I promise that you’ll have fun, but… Well, some days it will feel hard.

If your family and friends are anything like mine, they love you very much and want what’s best for you. So this is also when the well-meaning but occasionally tactless and frantic advice begins. I’m sure that you have bridesmaids and friends aplenty who will be able to support you; still, as a recent bride, I want to preemptively encourage you.

I can’t tell you how many people–kind, wonderful people who I love, respect, and trust–said things to me like, “If you say/do/feel/tell him/act like such-and-so, it will strain/put pressure on/ruin your marriage before it even begins.”

Aaaaahhh! Way to freak a girl out, right? I know they meant well, but that is just a terrible template to follow when giving advice of any kind.

That being said, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. I hope the people who love you are more tactful than that. But if they’re not, please remember this: they are not you and [your fiance’s name here]. What worked for them might not work for you. Pay attention to the spirit of their advice, and give it due consideration–but please, please don’t let it freak you out. And don’t ever feel like you can’t tell him something because somebody told you it would be a bad idea. Secrets are a bad idea. Your relationship and marriage are yours, and always will be.

Also: Don’t let the grand concept of “Our Marriage” scare you; unless you do something really stupid, you’re not going to mess things up any time soon. Trust me, the first few months are easier than you think.

Again, I’m sure you have friends who will support you and tell you when other people are just acting ludicrous. I know I did. But I wish someone had told me beforehand about this part of engagement. It’s okay to feel stressed, but don’t let other people dampen this period of time. It’s fun and wonderful and stressful and blissful and some days you’ll want to pull your hair out or run away and elope. Chances are that you’ll cry at least a few times. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re Bridezilla. Regardless, we all love and support you, especially your bridal party and family. So have fun! In the end, you’ll be Mrs. [your married name here], and that’s all that matters.

I am always here for you. I can’t wait for you to join the Mrs. Club!

Mrs. Leah Grover

Spindiddly

When I invited my good friend for tea a few weeks ago, I expected her to come with a few titles for me to seek out. I didn’t expect her to bring me any physical books. To my delight, she came toting three stories in her grad student/nanny backpack!

I tried to pace myself–really, I did–but two weeks hadn’t passed before I finished all three. Now the time has come to write about them. In this, I will gladly take my time, as each book demands its own post.


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In the interest of consistency, I declare Fridays the day of young adult fiction reviews! Three cheers!

A Snicker of Magic (by Natalie Lloyd) follows Felicity Pickle, the word-collecting daughter of a woman whose wanderlust has finally led her home. Home–to Midnight Gulch, where folktales live on, even though the magic has all-but died out. Felicity finds herself compelled to seek the truth behind the tale of the Brothers Threadbare. She makes some good friends, including Jonah Pickett (alias “the Beedle”); eats some magical, memory-reviving ice cream; learns the reason for her mother’s nomadic preferences, and sees reconciliation in its many forms.

Vague enough for you? Good. Go read it. You’ll understand better that way.

I love the Jonah/Felicity relationship. They’re drawn together by a lot of factors, none of them romantic. Jonah is a do-gooder, and he wants to help Felicity. Felicity is new to town and just wants to root. She describes their relationship like this:

Jonah Pickett was like snow days, field trips, candy stores, and Christmas Eve all blended into one big swoosh of a feeling. (139)

If you don’t think that is among the highest compliments a child can pay, then I recommend that you spend a summer as a camp counselor. If any of my nephews characterized me as just one of those things, I would happy cry for days. Sporadically, of course.

But she doesn’t leave it at that. Later, Felicity says this:

That day Jonah became more than just a friend who kept my words safe. I realized he was the kind of friend who didn’t mind the silent places. The quiet fell between us like a comfortable old quilt and we both settled into it. (210)

Now, if I learned anything in college, it’s that silence is vital to sanity–and that the closest friends you’ll ever have are the ones who can be comfortably silent with you. I could (and probably will, eventually) write an entire post–maybe even a book–about the woman who taught me that, and the friend who showed me. It’s not a thing that I ever imagined children discovering, or even stumbling upon. If I’m honest, I envy Felicity and Jonah.

Really, though: This is such a sweet story, set in the real world with glimmers of the magic that draws us to fairytales. And magic ice cream that revives memories and stays cold for twenty-four hours without being in the freezer. You know.

Oh, and, as for “spindiddly”–that’s Felicity’s word for something wonderful.