Jessie Burton’s The Restless Girls

Once upon a time twelve princesses wore out their shoes dancing the night away.  Jessie Burton cleverly adapts this famous Grimm’s tale to a modern story in The Restless Girls.  Keeping many of the same elements – a hidden door to a magic land, the girls locked away together every night, and an irate king demanding to know their secret – Burton’s twist gives each princess a special proclivity for a modern skill not so girly.

One is expert in botany, another in math, the eldest wanting to follow their mother’s love of adventure and speed.  Each of the twelve has her own gift, nurtured and encouraged by their now dead mother, who died in a strange race car accident, but now locked away in a room by the fear of the their grieving father, the king.  The princesses, however, retain their self-possession and manage to overcome.

Finding the secret door behind the portrait of their mother, the princesses bravely follow a dark path to a land of talking animals, diamonds on trees, and music.  Each night, just as in the Grimm tale, they dance all night wearing out their shoes.  Each morning the king demands to know how they escaped, and offers his kingdom to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Of course, a handsome prince solves the dilemma in the old fairy tale, but Burton’s modern version has the girls solving their own problems, with the eldest as the leader and role model for all the others.

I discovered the book while researching the author, whose story The Miniaturist famously brought in a lucrative contract and a subsequent movie deal for the first time author. Since then she has written The Muse, and her latest book I’ve ordered from the UK – The Confession.

Alfred Hickling’s review of The Confession prompted me to find The Restless Girls. In assessing her new book, he refers to Burton’s book for middle schoolers and her improved writing style:

“What one notices here, however, is a more free-flowing aspect to her prose, which is plainer and less obstructed by overworked passages than her earlier work. Perhaps this new sense of liberation has been prompted by having produced her first book for children, The Restless Girls; a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with a racy new slant… Kept under lock and key by an overprotective father, they are ultimately redeemed by the restorative power of storytelling.”

Give yourself a treat and read this wonderful book.

A Tale Dark and Grimm

Grimm’s fairy tales are everywhere I read these days.  In reviewing Toni Morrison’s new book God Help the Child for the New York Times, Kara Walker identified this as a child abuse story –  “a brisk modern-day fairy tale with shades of the Brothers Grimm…hungering for warmth.”  Alexandra Alter mentioned a Grimm story for older children – Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm – in her article about children’s book editor Julie Strauss-Gabel (The Barbed Pen of Best Sellers).” Gidwitz’s first book, thanks to the clever editing of Strauss-Gabel, was named a 2010 Best Children’s Book by Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and the book was followed by two more in the trilogy.

Although Gidwitz’s dark and scary tale is written for middle schoolers, like many children’s books, adults can find an abundance of relatable material. The theme of parenting – mostly bad parenting – is the focus for following Hansel and Gretel through a series of original and incredibly violent Grimm fairy tales.  The action is gruesome and scary, punctuated by the author’s sly teasing to turn away before the next horrible event – meant to goad readers to keep reading, of course.  Lessons are learned about the meaning of finding yourself, finding your home, and finding forgiveness.

“It will happen to you, Dear Reader, at some point in your life. You will face a moment very much like the one Hansel and Gretel are facing right now. In this moment, you will look at your parents and realize that – no matter what it sounds like they are saying – they are actually asking you for forgiveness.”

9780142419670_p0_v2_s260x420Hansel and Gretel are beheaded; fingers are cut off; girls are dismembered, and more…but all is well in the end – a fairy tale ending?

If you have not found this gem – and don’t mind a little blood and guts – read it with your favorite middle schooler – or alone at night when the wind is howling.