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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Goose Girl," "The Tiger Bone Thief"


"The Goose Girl," Shannon Hale, Bloomsbury; 2003; 383 pp.

Once upon a time, two German brothers published a collection of children's stories inspired by popular European folk tales. The stories of the Brothers Grimm became fairytale classics, and many of them -- Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty -- are read by children to this day.

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Among them was the story of a goose girl. She didn't start out tending geese. In fact, she was born a crown princess, with the remarkable gift of being able to speak to horses and birds, even command the wind. One day the princess was sent to be married in a far-off kingdom, but en route, her longtime maid-in-waiting conspired against her. The princess fled for her life, while the treacherous maid stole her loyal horse and rode off to marry the prince, pretending to be her mistress.

The real princess was forced to find work as a goose girl, biding her time till she could make her true identity known to the prince.

Now author Shannon Hale has attempted a massive rewrite of this well-known fairytale. The story stays pretty much the same, but Hale's "The Goose Girl" is novel-size and packed with imaginative detail.

Her version is strong on characterization. Where the original heroine didn't even have a name, Hale's gets a lyrical title -- Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kilindree. And this story of a farm girl who is ultimately recognized as royalty becomes, in Hale's hands, a coming-of-age tale.

To be truthful, the princess in the Grimm tale is a bit too meek (as all girls were expected to be at the time). Anidori starts out that way, too, but grows into a strong-willed and confident woman. Hale places Anidori in charge of her own destiny. She isn't going to become queen by weeping and feeling sorry for herself, or by waiting for her prince to come to her rescue. To become queen, she must recognize her own strengths and stand up for herself.

Anidori has one more lesson to learn before she becomes queen, and here, Hale's version has another contemporary message. Sure, it's unfair for a princess to have to work as a goose girl -- but it's so much more unjust that girls who aren't born into royalty, as Anidori is, must do menial work like tending geese all their lives. Seeing how ordinary people live is a lesson in life for Anidori.

Hale's sympathy lies also with other characters, who are no less heroic for being ordinary: Conrad the goose boy who feels threatened by Anidori's mysterious powers; and Finn and Gilsa, the forest-dwellers who share what little they have with Anidori, expecting nothing in return.

Hale's "The Goose Girl" has all those fairytale moments of tragedy, romance, passion and triumph. It is also no less violent than the original -- Anidori is perpetually on the run from her maid, Selia, and the rest of her traitorous retinue. After all, she can only prove that they are impostors if they don't kill her first.

It might seem like Hale has an easy job of it: Where other children's writers have to think up their own characters and storylines, all she's done is rewrite a popular tale. But Hale's task is harder than it looks -- rewriting (and improving on) a story that's compelling enough to have stood the test of time.

Here's one instance where a story has been retold so imaginatively that knowing how it ends doesn't make the read any less engrossing.

For young adults. Available from Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131 from the end of this month, and from online bookstores.

"The Tiger Bone Thief," Richard Kidd Corgi Books; 2002; 192 pp.

This is the kind of children's book that's easily ignored because it's not grandstanding as a fantasy or a fairy-tale a thriller or a rib-tickler. But to ignore it would be a shame, because this unpretentious adventure story for younger children, "The Tiger Bone Thief," is a wonderfully written detective tale for wannabe sleuths.

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Jimmy Stoker is a Sherlock Holmes in the making. About a year after moving to Larkstoke village with his family, he solved his first mystery by saving old Major Gregory's prized koi carp collection from being stolen. (Read "The Giant Goldfish Robbery" by the same author.)

Of late, Jimmy's dreams have been full of tigers. When his friend, Billy, helps him land a Saturday job at the local zoo, Jimmy finds himself getting up close and personal with many of the zoo's inhabitants, and not just the tigers.

Then Boris, the great Siberian tiger, dies. Rumors abound about what will be done to his bones, and there's talk circulating of how much money tiger bones fetch in the Chinese-medicine market. When Jimmy happens upon Boris' body being taken out of the park, he fears the worst. Who is trying to steal Boris' bones?

Billy suspects that the new Chinese restaurant that's opened in town might have something to do with this mystery. But Sheila and Sandra Wong are Jimmy's new friends -- and it seems unfair to assume their parents are involved in trafficking tiger bones just because they're Chinese.

Jimmy decides to investigate, and makes some rather unusual friends along the way -- including a woman whose job is making dead animals look alive, and an eccentric who believes that tiger poo will be the next big thing in gardening.

Young readers will love the idea of a neighborhood mystery just begging to be solved by a bunch of enterprising children. Wittily written, straightforwardly told, Kidd's latest book doesn't attempt anything that hasn't been done before. But as an example of the adventure-story format, it's near-perfect.

Available from online bookstores


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