There seems to be a serious problem in the publishing industry when it comes to marketing a smart, thoughtful, engaging book for young readers that is based on a traditional fairy tale. For some reason, the people who choose the cover art, and even the titles in this case, have a problem matching the outside with what's inside... I have complained in the past when reviewing Gail Carson Levine's superb retelling of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted and, with Wendy Mass' excellent contribution to the genre, I think I have an even stronger case to make.
Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair (Twice Upon a Time Series) by Wendy Mass is a winsome new look at an old story. In fact, it is one of those rare young adult books that I actually wish was longer, as opposed to the 500+ page doorstops that hit the shelves monthly. However, if this book were any longer it would threaten to move into a higher reading level and it is so perfectly suited for fourth graders and especially younger children reading above their grade level that I wouldn't want to risk losing that aspect of the book. Intended as a series, but so far the only up to #2 which is titled Sleeping Beauty: The One Who Took the Really Long Nap, these books by Mass are marketed, both by title and cartoonish cover art, to be humorous retellings of fairy tales by characters with attitude. With alternating narration by the main characters, prince and princess, or commoner and prince, in the case of Rapunzel, these could be a sassy tweener version of a "he said, she said" story. However, I found Rapunzel to be more along the lines, albeit at a slightly lower reading and maturity level, of Ella Enchanted and Robin McKinley's excellent retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty.
The story begins with Rapunzel on the morning of her twelfth birthday. Before she even gets to eat the special honey almond pies her mother has made for her birthday and receive the ceremonial "first haircut" given to girls when they turn twelve, a witch storms into her father's rampion (or rapunzel) garden, which is also the family's livelihood, demanding payment for their deal. She carries the girl off to a tower where she waits idly as her hair grows longer and thicker. But, a prince hears her singing as he rides through the forest one day and, after watching the witch enter the tower then leave, follows her lead and comes face to face with the girl. He promises to rescue her, but the witch intercepts him and leaves him blinded and stumbling through the forest with Rapunzel, now banished for her betrayal, trapped in a thorny hedge-cage. The two manage to find each other again and, with teamwork, help each other out of their difficulties and find their way back to the kingdom on a white horse named Snowflake.
I know, it sounds pretty much like the original. What I left out are the new plot threads and details that Mass adds to the tale. Mystified as to how the witch enters the tower and feeds her, Rapunzel, with the help of a hidden hand mirror, discovers that she is being tended to by a reptilian green man who is treating her quite well. Lonely and homesick, she hides a note for him on her food tray one night which leads to a secret meeting. Steven, yes, that is the green man's name, although he longs for a more dashing one, tells Rapunzel of how the witch saved his son Stevie from choking to death by removing a huge beetle from his throat. Thus indebted to her, Steven agrees to work for her as a cook and a sentry and is surprised to find himself ensconced in the attic of a tower, the prisoner in a room below him. With the help of sleeping potion he has managed to keep his existence a secret, but, unable to believe that the young girl he is guarding is really a thief, as the witch has told him, he gives her treats and gifts in an effort to ease her sorrows. When Rapunzel figures out a plan of escape for the two, as well as the reason why Steven and her parents should be released from their debts to Mother Gothel (the traditional name of the witch in the story and also the German word for godmother), as the witch insists on being called, the two break free but only Steven gets away.
Meanwhile, Prince Benjamin is leading a somewhat sheltered life in the castle. A glasses wearing (and losing) animal lover, he finds himself in the village and among peasants one day when he gets lost trying to find a hare that he chased in anger and wishes to apologize to. Instead, he meets a boy roughly his own age also named Benjamin and learns that every boy born within three years of the birth of the Prince has been named Benjamin. Other Benjamin, as the Prince thinks of him, reckons there must for at least fifty boys in the village with the same name. The Prince is overwhelmed by this information, but even more amazed when Other Benjamin's father is able to mend his broken glasses with great skill and delicacy. The Prince wonders why such a master works at cleaning dung heaps rather than as a spectacle maker. When Other Benjamin's father tells him that cleaning dung heaps is a more certain line of work, the Prince vows to himself that he will one day help this man, feeling a "newfound respect for the villagers who clean dung heaps instead of following their dreams because it is best for their family." The Prince must also contend with his obnoxious cousin Elkin, who is visiting for the summer and find time for his best friend in the castle, the page Andrew who is training to be a knight. When Andrew tells the Prince of a treasure that is hidden in a cave in the forest and guarded by a troll, the two hatch a plan to retrieve the treasure and improve the lives of the villagers. How the paths of the Prince and Rapunzel cross, how Elkin reveals a sensitive side to his otherwise boorish self and how a hermit with a remarkable talent for cave painting unfold in the story is yours to discover, along with a few other treats. And, in perfect tune with the content of the story, the book does not end with a wedding, even though arranged marriages are part of the plot.
Maybe the fact that both the Prince and Rapunzel notice, with dread, that they each have a pimple at some point in the story, caused the marketing team to decide to go the direction it did with this book. Maybe the other few nods to contemporary life like passing gas and a toddler who runs through the castle yelling, "Poopy bottom poopy poo!" made them think they should play up the tween angle. If their decisions inspired a few readers who are normally inclined to choose books with splashy pink covers and titles like, "How I Survived Middle School" to give Wendy Mass' great fairy tale remake a try, then maybe it's worth the (sort of) false advertising. I just hope that readers who normally shy away from books with this kind of cover are willing to give it a try also. Any reader who loves fairy tales will get caught up in it and want more!