by Betsy | 1/28/2014
" Since when did fairytales become the realm of the girly? I blame Disney. Back in the days of Grimm your average everyday fairytale might contain princesses and pretty gowns and all that jazz, but it was also just as likely to offer its own fair share of dragons and murderers and goblins as well. Once the Disney company realized that princesses were magnificent moneymakers, gone was the gore and the elements that might make those stories appealing to the boy set. If you actually sat down and watched the films you'd see plenty of princes fighting beasts (or fighting beast princes) but the very idea of "Sleeping Beauty" or "Snow White" or any of those films has taken on a semi-sweet and sickly vibe. By the same token, it's hard to find fractured fairytale children's novels that can be loved just as much by boys as by girls. The great equalizer of all things is, to my mind, humor. Make something funny and gender is rendered irrelevant. There are certainly a fair number of funny fairytale-type stories out there, but to my mind none are quite so delightful and hilarious as Christopher Healy's newest series. Starting with The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (and followed by The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle), Healy takes that most maligned of all fairytale characters and finally gives "him" a voice. You heard right. Prince Charming is finally getting his due.
Meet Princes Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav. If their names don't ring a bell with you, don't be too surprised. Known better by their pseudonym "Prince Charming" the princes are a bit peeved at the lousy P.R. their adventures have garnered. The bards have found that their stories tell better when the girls get all the credit (and actual names) and it isn't just the princes that are peeved. A local witch is more than a little upset, and that anger may have something to do with the slow disappearance of the bards themselves. Now it's up to our four heroes, brought together through the strangest of circumstances, to band together to defeat an evil witch, strike down a giant or two, outwit bandits, and generally find a way to make their faults into strengths.
I take a gander at debut author Christopher Healy's credentials and I am oddly pleased. A reviewer of children's books and media he has written for Cookie, iVillage, Parenting, Time Out New York Kids, and Real Simple Family. In short, he's from the parenting sphere. Clearly he's taken what he's learned and applied it here because it's his wordplay that stands out. For example, he might list the jobs Cinderella has to perform as using "every waking hour performing onerous tasks, like scrubbing grout or chipping congealed mayonnaise from between fork tines." By the same token, the sneaky sidenote is a delicate beast. It requires of the author a bit of finesse. Go too far as a writer for children and you end up amusing only the adults who happen to pick up your book. With this in mind, Healy is a sneaky sidenote master. He'll give away a detail about the future and then say, "Oops, sorry about that. I probably should have said, `Spoiler alert'." That's 21st century foreshadowing for you. Or he might sneak in a Groucho Marx reference like "Captain Spaulding" once in a while, but it works within the context of the story (and amuses reviewers like myself in the meantime). Or he'll mention that part of the witch's plan is shooting bears at people out of cannons. It's hard not appreciate a mind that comes up with that kind of thing.
In his New York Times review of the book Adam Gopnik took issue with the sheer enjoyment one can have with the book, going so far as to say, "Each page offers something to laugh at, but it can be an effort to turn each page." His objections were steeped in the world building happening here, unfavorably comparing it to The Princess Bride (an unfair comparison if ever there was one) and even shooting quite low when he dared to invoke the name of the Shrek films. Oog. The fact of the matter is that if you're looking for deep insightful probes into the human psyche, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a perfectly fun story that meanders a bit but always stays on its feet, here's your book. The princes are broad portraits, stereotypes that break out of their chosen roles, if reluctantly. They are also fellows you would follow from book to book to book. They have on-page chemistry (my wordier version of on-screen chemistry). You believe in these guys and you want them to succeed and not get beaten up too badly. It's a fun and funny book and though it won't win huge children's literature awards it will be adored by its readership and discussed at length on the playgrounds of this good great nation. And that is just fine and dandy with me.
Considering how many contemporary updates to fairytales there are in pop culture right now (Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White & The Huntsman, etc.) it's strange to me that I can't think of a book to quite compare with this one. A book that takes standard fairytales and familiar characters, renders them unfamiliar but human, and then loads the storyline up with bucketfuls of humor. I mean, books like A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly are newfound looks at old standards but they haven't the light bouncy breezy quality of Healy's work. These are fairytales for folks who love Disney, hate Disney, love fractured fairytales, love the original fairytales, and/or just like a good story in general. It's perfect bedtime fare and ideal for those kids who want something amusing to read on their own. You know when a kid walks up to you and says they want a "funny" book? This is for them as well. Basically it's for everyone, fantasy fans and fantasy haters alike. If ever you feel sick of the sheer seriousness of some fantasies (*cough* Eragon *cough*), this is a book for you too. Put it on your To Read list and pronto.
For ages 8-12. "