After four books about tiny people living in walls, author Mary Norton decided it was time for a distinct change. And by distinct change, I mean, a book directly referencing giants: Are All the Giants Dead? (Spoiler: Er, no.) But this is not merely a book about giants: it’s a story of fairy tales, of exploration, of limitations, of writing, of imagination and courage. As with Norton’s other books, it makes for great bedtime reading: beautifully written and filled with subtle humor aimed at both adults and kids. I should like it more than I do.
Young James (he seems to be about ten, or twelve, but is possibly older or younger) wakes to find himself with a woman called Mildred in a room ever so slightly changed from the room he’s used to sleeping in. Mildred is not there to tuck him into bed, but rather to take him on an adventure. From the sounds of things, this is hardly their first small hours of the night expedition; James almost seems a bit bored with the whole thing, and initially disappointed—disappointed!—to realize that they are just, sigh, visiting the fairy tale people. Again. How boring. Feel his pain. (I sense the entire Disney marketing staff cringing here.) He comforts himself with the thought that sometimes – just sometimes the fairy tale people are interesting. I’d just note, James, that it’s entirely possible that Cinderella might like you a bit more if you didn’t immediately inform her that you prefer science fiction. It’s chilling.
To be fair to James, Cinderella (aka Pumpkin), Sleeping Beauty (Belle), and Beauty of Beauty and the Beast (Boofy) are now all middle aged and more interested in tea, gossip, and London magazines. (This last is a great touch.) Understandably James finds this all a bit dull, and is therefore sent out to play with Dulcibel. Who, of all people, understands dull: about all she can do is play with a golden ball and a cup by a well which just happens to be inhabited by a toad. Or a frog. I think you can all guess what fairy tale she’s stuck inside. With one twist: the toad in question apparently is in love with another toad. A jeweled toad.
This all might mean more to James if he weren’t so focused on science fiction (sigh). He and Mildred soon leave to find Jack the Giant Killer and Jack of the Beanstalk, now old men running an inn of sorts who are troubled by dancing red shoes. Those shoes always creeped me out (I can’t believe that no one, and especially no one in fairy tale land, has burned those shoes by now), but here, they serve a slightly better plot point—dragging James out to meet Dulcibel, who has triggered her fairy tale at last, and is deeply unhappy about it, just as Mildred is safely off to a wedding to stimulate some writing. Which means that it’s up to James to find a certain frog—and just possibly face a giant. And a witch. And some hobgoblins who are kinda adorable in a hideously ugly kinda way. Well, Dulcibel adores them.
As you might be gathering, quite a lot is going on here beneath the surface, especially with Mildred, who can drag children to fairy tale lands only to swiftly abandon them for another story; it’s not much of a stretch to read her as a children’s writer who takes children to fairy tale lands and allows them to explore as she continues to hunt for new stories. I also love her warning to James that fairy tales are for visiting only, that getting involved can be dangerous—since directly after this, she gets involved, however accidentally, and changes Dulcibel’s story. And the hint that this is the sort of thing she and James do all the time, and that she will drag him into fairy tale lands even if he wants robots.
Norton also has fun with various small details—the way the costumes everyone is wearing make very little sense since they are from multiple periods and aren’t all that accurate anyway: hello, children’s book illustrators who couldn’t decide what century to put Beauty and the Beast in. And of course those shoes. I like that Norton recognizes that sometimes, you need a symbol to cling to in order to start being brave. And I love that James’ reaction to meeting Cinderella is just, ok, whatever, although this may just be my reaction from just a few too many encounters with small Disney princesses. And that, of course, not all of the giants are completely dead, and it’s going to take thinking to solve that.
I readily admit that the reason I don’t like the book as much as I should is that I’m bringing in more outside factors than Norton intended. I’m not happy with the minor conflict between science fiction and fairy tale, for one, although this book was written before Star Wars, the space opera that deliberately tried to combine the two. I’m not happy with Dulcibel, who rarely seems to be able to think for herself, and, sigh, finds her courage with the help of a boy. I do have one potentially-sorta-maybe-legitimate gripe, which is that for all of Mildred’s warnings that interfering in fairy land and getting involved in its stories is a bad thing, in this case, it turns out to be a very good thing indeed, since the involvement of Mildred and James allows Dulcibel to find her courage and gain her happy ending. I don’t know what would have happened without this: not all fairy tales have a happy ending, and The Frog Prince contains moments of major physical abuse which I always figured would be brought up later in the marriage. (“Well, YOU threw me against a wall once!” “You wanted to climb into my bed without permission! Bestiality, NOT MY THING!”)
It’s a nice, short read, however, and worth sharing with a child.
Additional note: Hands down the best parts of the edition I read were the black and white illustrations by Brian Froud. If you do pick this up, and I have mixed feelings about that, search out the illustrated edition, and allow those to pull you into Faerie for a bit.
Mari Ness rather hopes that she can be equally as chill should life ever introduce her to the Real Life Cinderella, but she doubts it. She lives in central Florida.