Whose Story is It Anyway? Ten Characters Who Take Back Their Books by Natalie M. Rosinsky
If you think you already know that classic story or novel, think again! You and the young people in your life will smile with delight or shiver with astonishment as a well-known plot unfolds from an unexpected character’s viewpoint. Everything from fairy tales to legends to literary classics are creatively retold in these attention-grabbing works. They are aimed at a wide range of readers—from early elementary-age kids through teens on up. And, of course, every one of these books will please young-at-heart readers.
Fairy tales were never more enchanting than they are in these modern versions:
Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat!: Or, the Scarlet Slippers shows us a Cinderella story through the eyes of one of her magically-transformed attendants. What happens if the stroke of midnight does not change this character back into a rat? A young boy turns up at elderly Bob and Joan’s door, wearing a page’s uniform. He does not know his name or how to use a spoon, and he insists he was a rat! The childless couple adopts the boy, never dreaming of the adventures ahead of him.
In The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as the Fawg Pin, Donna Jo Napoli retells The Frog Prince. A magic spell torments this once-human character, who must remain a frog until a princess kisses him. Instead of the princess, we hear all about this from the confused frog. He has some painful and frustrating lessons to learn—including how a frog’s mouth cannot shape words the way a human’s can. There are a few tears as well as laughter here and in Napoli’s two sequels to this book: Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace and Gracie, the Pixie of the Puddle.
For somewhat older readers, author Napoli upends another famous fairy tale by making its villain the storyteller. The Magic Circle, her eerie version of Hansel and Gretel, is told from the hungry witch’s viewpoint. You will be surprised by the sympathy you feel for the woman who tricks, traps, and almost kills that brother and sister. We see just how and why the witch came to live a lonely, barren life in the forest. She hungers for much more than food, but is doomed by her own poor choices as well as chance and other people’s cruelty.
Legendary villains also speak for themselves in Nancy Springer’s novels centered on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. We meet Arthur’s two greatest foes when they are still children in I am Mordred and I am Morgan le Fay. We feel for young Mordred as he struggles to avoid committing the evil acts predicted for his future. We admire Morgan’s strong emotions and determination even as we see her start down a path towards violence. Tween and teen readers already familiar with Arthurian legends will best appreciate these multilayered, sometimes dark novels.
Those readers and some younger ones will also relish Jane Yolen’s trilogy of very short novels about another legendary Arthurian figure, the wizard Merlin. Tradition depicts Merlin as an old man when he begins to advise Arthur. Yolen’s works, though, are told from Merlin’s viewpoint when he is just a boy, abandoned in a forest. Passager, Hobby, and Merlin (also reissued in one volume as The Young Merlin Trilogy) show us Merlin between the ages of eight and twelve, as he and others discover his magical abilities. We see the joys and dangers Merlin experiences through his innocent, then wiser eyes.
Some secondary characters in classic novels also speak out. Readers of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist learn more about its sly Artful Dodger in the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel titled simply Dodger. There, 17 year-old Dodger’s better qualities finally shine as he endangers himself to rescue a young woman. Along the way, Dodger tells us about his dealings with that famous author, Mr. Charles Dickens! This historical adventure is more upbeat than the dramatic graphic novel that reinvents another Oliver Twist character. In Fagin the Jew, author/illustrator Will Eisner examines how prejudice and chance thwart all of Moses Fagin’s best instincts and ambition, leading him to become the villain Dickens portrays. Eisner’s Fagin speaks directly to readers and also confronts his original creator, Mr. Dickens.
Even more minor characters take charge of two other classic works. Do you remember the housemaid Mary Ann in Alice in Wonderland? The White Rabbit at first mistakes Alice for this absent servant. Only briefly mentioned by Lewis Carroll, Mary Ann is the central character in the whimsical graphic novel Wonderland. Author Tommy Kovacs and illustrator Sonny Liew have fun giving us nervous Mary Ann’s colorful version of events.
Author Jo Baker also uses servants’ viewpoints to retell the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Baker’s novel Longbourn shows us the Bennett household through the unflinching eyes of housemaid Sarah, among others who labor long hours. Vivid, moving details make us care about these characters, barely mentioned by Austen.
These new storytellers of familiar tales provide more than great reading. They remind us that different points of view are always possible.
Natalie Rosinsky, award-winning author of nonfiction, blogs monthly about graphic novels, comics, manga, and pictures books in “Gone Graphic,” at www.natalierosinsky.com. She posts essays about other literature, popular culture, travel, and family life there in “Articles.”