A popular novelist may be prone to looking at the whole of their oeuvre. They consider their past works, look to the future, and decide to write a graphic novel. What makes them do this? Is it the potential to reach whole new audiences? Is it the accessibility of the format? The trendiness of it all? Or it is something else? Could it be that graphic novels are the wave of the future? Could be. Certainly they offer an author a whole new way of looking at the literary format. Why an enterprising young man or woman – and man, could perhaps even take a fairy tale and do wondrous things with it. You could even, and maybe I’m just talking crazy stuff here, take the fairy tale of Rapunzel, slap it into a pseudo-cowboy/wizardry setting. Add in Newbery-Honor winner Shannon Hale, her husband, and a guy with the same last name who doesn’t happen to be related to either of them, and you have a rip-roaring tale of betrayal, escape, romance, and very long locks. Hypothetically, of course.
First things first. You are all familiar with the story of Rapunzel I assume, yes? Witch takes neighbor’s baby after the husband steals some of the rapunzel plant for his wife to eat. Witch keeps kid up a tower until the child’s hair grows long and she is eventually rescued by a prince. It’s all pretty basic stuff. Well that’s sort of the true story, but not exactly. For most of Rapunzel’s life she’s actually kept in a lovely castle with the woman she thinks is her mother, learning rope tricks from the guards and generally having a good time. One day the girl grows inordinately curious about the tall wall that surrounds her home and so she scales it. Consequently, what she sees from the top causes her to question everything about her life. As punishment for this act of rebelliousness Rapunzel is kept in the hollow of a tall tree where her hair grows at an inordinate rate. Each year her “mother” asks if she’s ready to be forgiven and each year Rapunzel stays the same. When she finally breaks out of her treetop prison she joins forces with a boy named Jack and the two of them set out to break the power of her “mother” and save the hardscrabble land around them.
Rapunzel is one of those fairy tale characters that remain both iconic and relatively unblemished. Disney never did a thing with Rapunzel, after all. When you think of her, you mind may refer to Paul O. Zelinsky’s Caldecott winning picture book or other images of her in literature. From a personal viewpoint, my first reference tends to be the Rapunzel character in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. But where Sondheim played up the mother/daughter aspects of the relationship, Hale n’ Hale are not particularly interested in that take on the story. Here Mother Gothel, as she is known, is a pretty unrepentantly evil character. She bears little affection for the girl she has raised, which I think is a bit of a loss. It would have been nice to see a more complex villain. Someone who can care and love a little girl on the one hand as a mother, and then turn around and crush the spirit of a nation on the other.
That said, the Hales have a good sense of character and personality here. Rapunzel’s spirit is pretty evident, both visually and through her verve and words right from the get go. Heck, the first time you see her she’s hanging off a branch in the garden and falling into a small pond. The Hales avoid the usual tomboy-told-to-act-like-a-pretty-princess storyline that’s been so done and overdone before. Here Rapunzel is brave and curious right from the start, but with a way of communicating that is entirely her own. After all, when she first sees the devastation that surrounds her home of the past nine years her response is “Well I’ll be swigger-jiggered and hung out to dry.”
The cowboy feel and characters in this book are a bit odd, but they work within the context of the tale. It’s certainly a more American take on the Rapunzel story than you’ll usually find in a library. All spurs and lassos and riding bucks. Short of Indian attacks (of which there are blessedly none) all the usual tropes are there.
Nathan Hale was an interesting choice of illustrator for this particular outing. It took me a while to get attuned to his more cartoonish style, I admit. I had seen the work he’d done on his picture books Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School, which employed a mighty realistic take on your average everyday six-year-old monsters. For this book, Hale scales back the complexity (at least until he needs to use it) producing a simpler product. Once you get into it, it kinda works. I liked Hale’s ability to render the multiple uses of extremely long hair during the Rapunzel-grows-up montages. I liked that he was as comfortable presenting a grey desolate wasteland as we was a beautiful ball gown. If I’m not too much mistaken there seemed to be a visual Pippi Longstocking reference going on for much of the book (hey man, I always said she was the original female superhero). And I liked that he ends the book (spoiler alert, for those of you who care) with a very sexy kiss. Very sexy. Or maybe I just like boys in white shirtsleeves.
It’s a hard novel to place, in a way. There really aren’t that many younger reader graphic novels outside of the manga sphere to compare this to. I can’t help but think that it’s going to have to be a hit, though. A Newbery Honor winning author taking familiar fairy tale tropes and then wrapping the whole kerschmozzle in a kick-butt girl package? It’s going to have its fans. My only difficulty as a librarian is in figuring out what to recommend to my patrons when they finish the book and want more of the same. Suggestions on that topic are more than welcome. A fun new book worth taking a gander at.
On shelves August 19th.
Notes on the Cover: Clever Bloomsbury. Clever Nathan Hale. This is what we call in the business (and by “the business” I mean “my brain”) a Gimme Gimme Cover. We call it that because the minute I hold it in front of a 11-year-old’s nose they’re gonna start with the gimme gimme gimmes. Can’t blame the little chaps. I was the same way when I first saw this book at ComicCon. Great colors, great image, and great lighting. Not enough children’s books seek to shine a light beneath a character’s face. I mean, there was Brian Selznick’s “The Boy of a Thousand Faces” but that’s the only other cover (aside from the usual campfire fare) to come to mind.
Hale and Hearty Note: Thought there were just three Hales working on this book? Think again. A mysterious Melinda Hale appears to be the soul responsible for the balloons and lettering in this puppy. That makes the whole enterprise a Four Hale Product. The like of which we may ne’er see again.
Other Blog Reviews: Miss Erin, The Reading Zone, A Year of Reading, BookMoot, Welcome to My Tweendom, Reading Rants, and Shelf Elf.