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Book Reviews

Europe

(Outside of the United Kingdom)

 

Lisbeth Zwerger    Astrid Lindgren    Brigitte Weninger    Cornelia Funke

 

 


  Lisbeth Zwerger

Bibliographic Citation:
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr I.  2002.  Swan lake.  Retold and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger.  Translated by Marianne Martens.  New York: North-South Books.  ISBN 0735817022.

Summary: 
Based on Tchaikovsky's original 1877 ballet, the story begins on the night of the prince's eighteenth birthday.  While out hunting, he nearly shoots the Swan Queen.  She tells him her tragic story of her and her friends, and how only the true love of a man can break the spell.  The following night at the ball, the evil sorcerer tricks the prince into confessing his love to a stranger rather than the Swan Queen.  He chases her and confesses his love to her breaking the sorcerer's spell.  Unlike the present-day Swan Lake, this version ends happily with the prince and his Swan Queen together.

Analysis:

    In Swan Lake, Lisbeth Zwerger retells the 1877 version of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet.  It begins, "Once upon a time, all you needed was the right mix of enough evil and a good spell to transform a person into a tree, a rock, or even an animal." (Zwerger 1)  This opening line sets the enchanted setting for a story of transformation.  It also creates a general setting that allows the story to take on a universal appeal.  On the night before the prince's eighteenth birthday, his mother decides to have a ball the following evening, so that her son can choose a princess to marry (Zwerger 3).  The prince is not worried because tomorrow was far away and he still had the evening to enjoy himself. 

    As the prince and his friends go hunting after a group of swans, he suddenly becomes dizzy and must stay behind (Zwerger 3).  The prince encounters the Swan Queen, who tells him that she was the swan he tried to kill (Zwerger 5).  The Queen explains how she and her friends are cursed by an evil sorcerer and tells him that the spell can only be broken by the "true love of a man" (Zwerger 5).  The prince kneels before her and swears to name her as his bride at his birthday ball.  However, the evil sorcerer has other plans.  As the double-page spread turns from a white to black background, Zwerger foreshadows the tragedy that will befall the prince.  He incorrectly chooses and names the sorcerer's "daughter" as the "woman that [he] will love, and that [he] will love forever.  Only her, and no other." (Zwerger 11)         

    The true Swan Queen flees upon hearing the prince's declaration.  The prince follows her and reiterates his devotion to only her promising that no danger will chase him away (Zwerger 17).  Though the sorcerer attempts to separate them with a flood, Zwerger stays true to Tchaikovsky's original happy ending, while maintaining some ambiguity and mystery.  She leaves open the possibility that the prince may have drowned with the Swan Queen in the flood, but ends with the spell being broken and the pair living a "long and happy life together" (Zwerger 21).  In the author's note, Zwerger explains that she felt compelled to remain true to Tchaikovsky's original intentions for the story and to satisfy her own need for a happy ending.

    Also within the author's note, Zwerger admits her relief in omitting the names of the main characters, which have always seemed foreign to her.  By doing so, she has allowed the story not only to fit into her Austrian culture but any society.  The neutrality of the characters' origins gives the story a universal setting.  Though the story lacks indications of Zwerger's Austrian background, the illustrations instead help to mimic the tone of the book rather than the setting.         

    As a Hans Christian Andersen Medal-winner Zwerger brings the story to life through "her signature gauzy watercolors, framed in white borders" (Publishers Weekly).  The illustrations are ethereal and graceful evoking the ballet influences on the story.  "Dominated by blue, green, and gray backgrounds, the art captures the sweep of the lake, the wonder of the transformation of swans to maidens, and the darkness of betrayal." (Kellman 2002)  Zwerger always depicts the Swan Queen and her maidens as halfway between the transformation from human to swan.  When the prince first stumbles upon the Queen, Zwerger shows her dressed in a flowing white gown with white bird feathers peeking out from underneath it (6).  Her arm extends out toward the tree as if the neck of a swan and the red shading of her hand transforms it into a beak.  The Queen's human face, however, falls into shadow. 

    The theme of transformation and ballet is continued as the maidens begin their own changes.  One maiden is shown with a long swan's neck and head, but on her human legs and feet are white, dainty ballet slippers (Zwerger 8).  At the prince's ball, the women are shown dancing across the ballroom floor as if they were ballerinas (Zwerger 10).  The ballet roots of the story are echoed on each double-page spread with an excerpt of a music score written out across the top of one page.  Each section of music notes has its own detailed drawings to highlight it.  Within the illustrations, the tone shifts along with the story.  When the evil sorcerer and his daughter enter, Zwerger paints a vicious storm cloud with lightning overhead (12).  As darkness tries to interfere with the prince and the Swan Queen, the lake becomes green and stormy.  It rises in waves like the ocean and mimics the dark hills in the background (Zwerger 20).       

    Though I found the story's font difficult to read, the beautiful illustrations and simplicity of the story allowed me to overcome it.  I believe that while the ending may confuse some young readers, they will still be able to enjoy the fairy tale aspects of the story.  Older readers will delight in knowing the reasoning behind Zwerger's transformation of story from the familiar version to Tchaikovsky's original.  Though the tale lacks any Austrian setting or characters, the generality of the story demonstrates Zwerger's need to make it more universal and cross-cultural. 

Story Extension:
You could either attend a local performance of the ballet or watch a videotape version, and then compare the endings.

Reference List:
Kellman, Amy.  2002.  School library journal: Swan lake review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  Swan lake book review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).


  Astrid Lindgren

Bibliographic Citation:
Lindgren, Astrid.  1950.  Pippi Longstocking.  Translated by Florence Lamborn.  Illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman.  New York: Viking Press.  ISBN 0670557455. 

Summary: 
When her father is washed overboard at sea, nine-year-old Pippi Longstocking returns to Villa Villekulla to raise herself, along with her monkey and horse.  She makes friends with Tommy and Annika who live next door and participate in Pippi's adventures.  With her bright red hair, mismatched stockings, and too big shoes, Pippi's wild appearance matches her vivid imagination and antics.  Without a grown-up to tell her what to do, Pippi spends her time going to the circus, going on picnics, entertaining robbers, and rescuing little boys.  

Analysis:

    In Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren relays the antics and adventures of nine-year-old Pippi, who has returned from the sea after her father was washed overboard.  Pippi lives outside a small Swedish town in Villa Villekula all alone with her monkey and her horse.  She soon makes friends with the children next door, Tommy and Annika.  It is with these two that Pippi spends most of her adventures with.  Because the book has no clear beginning, middle, and end, Lindgren has linked the story together through a series of events that Pippi experiences.  Each chapter is a new scene with its own title, such as "Pippi is a Thing-Finder" and "Pippi Entertains Two Burglars."  This arrangement allows reluctant readers to read a chapter at a time or to skip around, rather than read the book from beginning to end. 

    This lack of a cohesive storyline also makes the book difficult to read continuously and maintain the flow of the narrative.  However, the simplicity of the writing and the compelling nature of the adventures encourage readers to pursue the book.   Pippi shows off her clever ability for wordplay, imagination, and lies.  When wondering if it was possible to eat a mushroom, she replies, "At any rate, it isn't possible to drink it--that much I know; so there is no choice except to eat it.  Maybe it's possible." (Lindgren 79)  In addition to having a wild imagination, Pippi demonstrates a great deal of naivety.  When she goes to the circus, she cannot understand why the ringmaster gets so mad when she interferes with the show.  She looks at him sadly and asks, "Why are you mad at me?  What's the matter?  I thought we were here to have fun." (Lindgren 95)  Her innocence shows how little she knows about proper etiquette and society.    

    "Her own happy childhood on a farm close to the small town of Vimmerby in the southern Swedish province of Småland is essential to Astrid Lindgren’s writing, but rather than being directly reflected in her stories, most of them are 'just versions of my own experiences in my far-off childhood where they gleam in my memory like flashes from a lighthouse.'" (Thompson 2002)  Pippi's own Villa Villekula is set in a similiar Swedish countryside.  Lindgren also subtly incorporates other aspects of her Swedish culture throughout her novel.  For instance, one morning Tommy and Annika arrive at Pippi's to find her making pepparkakor, a type of Swedish cookie, on the kitchen floor (Lindgren 25).  While the scene involves a bit of culture, it is uniquely Pippi by having her roll out the cookie dough on the floor and cutting out hearts. 

    Readers again are reminded of the characters' heritage as Tommy sings, "Here come the Swedes with a clang and a bang." (Lindgren 46)  Also, the setting of the story is further established when Pippi visits school.  The teacher tells her about the ibex, which is a type of ram that lives in Europe or Northern Africa (Lindgren 54).  Lindgren also uses vocabulary that dates the time period, such as using the word "ridgepole" or calling an ottoman a "hassock" (49).  While the tramps are waiting for Pippi to fall asleep, she is busy learning to dance the schottische (Lindgren 107).  Though the story has uncommon words, it still is easy for young readers to decipher the meanings of most of the vocabulary.   

    Though I often found it difficult to maintain my interest in the story due to its lack of a continuous plotline, I believe that reluctant readers will be able to maintain their interest in the short adventures that the chapters are broken up into.  The imagination and naivety of Pippi make her an engaging character.  Even though children are more likely to identify with Tommy and Annika, it is Pippi that they will want to emulate and envy.  Lindgren's seamless inclusions of her Swedish culture make the book distinct without it being unreadable by young audiences.  However, I found the ending rather abrupt and it left me wanting more of a clear-cut conclusion.  Also, I found that the pen drawings did little to add to the story's narrative and they clashed with my own mental images of Pippi and her friends.

Story Extension:
You can have a Pippi Longstocking Day where everyone dresses up in their favorite Pippi character.  You can make Swedish cookies, dance the schottische, and eat Swedish food!

Reference List:
Thompson, Birgitta.  2002.  Swedish book review: Tribute to Astrid Lindgren.  http://www.swedishbookreview.com/article-2002-1-thompson.asp (Accessed March 6, 2006).


  Author from Europe

Bibliographic Citation:
Weninger, Brigitte.  2004.  A child is a child.  Illustrated by Eve Tharlet.  Translated by Charise Myngheer.  New York: Minedition Book.  ISBN 0698400062.

Summary: 
When Daddy Frog does not come home, Mama Frog goes off to find him only to go missing herself.  The two little baby frogs are discovered crying by Mrs. Blackbird, Mr. Mole, and Mr. Hedgehog.  They all insist they are not the right ones to take care of the frogs.  Mama Mouse volunteers to take them in, despite the other animals' protests that she is not right for the job.  With the help of all the animals, Mama Mouse is able to raise her mice and the frogs together.
 

Analysis:

    In A Child is a Child, Brigitte Weninger tells a "heart-warming story of love and tolerance" when Mama Frog goes off in search of the father frog and does not return (Kirkus).  Her two baby frogs are left alone crying.  Their cries are overheard by Mrs. Blackbird, Mr. Mole, and Mr. Hedgehog (Weninger 3).  After hearing the frogs' story, they all agree that "this is really a terrible thing" (Weninger 4).  None of the animals know what to do and none of them want to take responsibility for the young frogs.  Each animal has a distinct personality, and a distinct excuse for not helping out.  Mrs. Blackbird exclaims, "Little frogs can't live in a bird's nest."  Mr. Hedgehog makes the excuse that he is always on the move (Weninger 5).   

    As the frogs continue to cry, Mama Mouse comes scurrying up with her five baby mice (Weninger 8).  Mama Mouse offers to take in the frogs without hesitation, despite the fact that she already has children of her own.  The others are appalled.  Mr. Hedgehog replies, "A frog is not a mouse or a mole or a blackbird.  Frogs need completely different things than we do!  It's just not that easy." (Weninger 11)  Mama Mouse, however, cannot be dissuaded because "a child is a child" (Weninger 14).  Though the frogs do need different things, Mama finds a way around that.  Using her clever thinking, she gets Mr. Hedgehog to find worms for the frogs to eat, she convinces Mr. Mole to dig them a bedroom, and she talks Mrs. Blackbird into finding them a bathtub (Weninger 15, 17). 

    Once everyone has chipped in, they realize that together they can help raise the frogs.  Mama Mouse's friends say, "Now you have seven wonderful children to take care of, but we're all hear to help you!" (Weninger 20).  "The message of love, acceptance, and community is simply communicated, making this a perfect title for adoptive or blended families." (Kirkus)  Because there are no cultural markers within the story, the message remains universal and transcends into any culture worldwide.    

    Eve Tharlet's "earthy palette and expressive animals are an excellent match for Weninger's light story on a weighty topic." (Kirkus)  The double-page spreads keep the action continuous, while the off-white backgrounds allow the scenes to be clearly depicted.  "Tharlet's subtle watercolors perfectly create psychologically sound portraits of all the characters.  Each has a distinct personality . . . ." (Marantz 2004)  When the animals first meet the frogs, the two young ones are huddled together and clinging to one another (Weninger 3-4).  Their eyes and expressions depict one of terror and loneliness.  The animals also appear distraught and worried over the two frogs.  Mrs. Blackbird continues to stare down at the ground.  Mr. Mole sits with his mouth open in astonishment, while Mr. Hedgehog sits in a thinking position (Weninger 5-6). 

    The frogs hover on the edges on the double-page spreads, hiding from the scrutiny of the animals.  Mama Mouse, however, parades right in with her cheerful five baby mice and gently wipes the frogs' eyes with two soft leaves (Weninger 7-8).  She stands protectively over the frogs as they move from clinging to each other to clinging to her (Weninger 11-12).  As Mama agrees to take the frogs in, Tharlet changes their expressions from fright to overjoyed (Weninger 14).  The animals' expressions change as their worry dissolves.  The two frogs begin to move away from one another as they become happier and more settled into their new situation (Weninger 21-22).  Tharlet has even included the end pages in her illustrations reflecting the change of tone in the story from beginning to end. 

    I believe that once again, while this story does not betray its Austrian roots it retains a wider, worldwide appeal.  It contains an important message about acceptance and responsibility.  It demonstrates how people (or animals) can judge others incorrectly or leave them out just because they are different.  This simple story with cheerful illustrations contains a heart-warming message that is sure to appeal to young readers.    

Story Extension:
You can have the children make up a list of other animals and decide on ways they could have helped Mama Mouse raise the two young frogs.  Also, you can have them draw a family portrait of all the animals and frogs together.

Reference List:
Kirkus.  n.d.  A child is a child review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 6, 2006).

Marantz Ken and Sylvia.  2004.  Children's literature: A child is a child review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 6, 2006).

 


  Batchelder Award Winner

Bibliographic Citation:
Funke, Cornelia.  2002.  The thief lord.  Translated by Oliver Latsch.  New York: Scholastic, Inc.  IBSN 0439404371.

Summary: 
Two orphan brothers escape from Hamburg, Germany to Venice, Italy in order to stay together.  Their aunt, who wants to adopt only the younger and angelic-looking Bo, hires a private detective to track them down.  Finding shelter with a gang of street children and their leader, the thirteen-year-old "Thief Lord," Prosper and Bo must find a way to elude the bumbling detective, Victor and their mean aunt.       

Analysis:

    In the Batchelder award-winner The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke tells the story of two young brothers who have run away from Hamburg, Germany to Venice.  They are attempting to escape their mean aunt who wants to adopt Bo and separate the boys.  Instead, they meet up with a street gang of young thieves, who are led by the mysterious Thief Lord named Scipio.  The boys come to lean on these friends as they elude their aunt and the bumbling detective, Victor, she has hired to find them.  "Intelligently written and plotted, The Thief Lord is a story in which the fantastic illustrates the value of our common, day-to-day relationships with family and friends." (deCastrique 2002) 

    Funke has developed rounded characters with Prosper playing the protective older brother and Bo acting as the naive and good-natured young boy.  Each member of their gang also holds a distinct role, but it is their leader who is the most mysterious and transparent at the same time revealing cracks in his tough facade.  "The characters are richly and realistically drawn--the good guys are not always good and the bad not really so bad." (Beach 2002)  Though Scipio attempts to help his friends, he has been deceiving them from the beginning by lying about his own background.  He is the Thief Lord, but he has never stolen anything in his life.  They are putting their fates in the hands of someone they do not know, even if he has their best interests at heart.  "Funke's imagination touches the adventurous parts of the heart, as well as the simple human desire to belong and be loved." (Schmidt 2002)       

    German writer Funke has chosen not to set her story within a German setting.  Instead the only cultural reference to her background is Bo and Prosper's ties to Hamburg and their aunt.  The true culture comes through in the Venetian setting.  "The action rolls along in short chapters, each illustrated with a small pen-and-ink illustration of a locale in Venice." (Rosser)  These tiny illustrations help depict monuments and sights around Venice to firmly establish the setting in the reader's mind.  Also, a map at the beginning of the story helps to give readers a sense of the layout of the city and where the events in the story take place.  Funke utilizes specific street names, such as Campo Santa Margherita, to establish the setting (103). 

    Funke continues to incorporate the Italian culture throughout the novel in its text.  She utilizes local tourist attractions and monuments.  The children meet their client in the Basilica in St. Mark's Square (Funke 74).  Funke uses the four massive golden horses in the square as a focal point for the story.  Bo is obsessed with them and stares at them whenever they come to the square.  His mother's love for Venice and her stories have developed his fascination with them.  In addition to the canals and vaporettos, Funke uses the Italian language throughout the book to give it a more authentic cultural feel.  "The vocabulary is somewhat demanding, with Italian words thrown in for atmosphere . . . ." (Rosser)  Some of the Italian words are given away by their context and are easy for readers to figure out.  For instance, Riccio drags Prosper into the pasticceria, while the Carabinieri drag Victor into the police station (Funke 46, 109).  Others like the old piombi prisons and ponti are a little more difficult to decipher (Funke 66).  These require going beyond the book to find the meaning.  Something most readers will not make the effort to do.    

    Though I loved the book and feel that readers will too, I agree with one critic who said, "There are a lot of story lines to follow, and the pacing is sometimes off (readers may feel that Funke spends too little time on what happens when the children find the carousel, and too much time on the ruse they pull on Prosper's aunt)." (PW 2002)  Funke seemed to dwell in certain areas, while skimming over others including the conclusion.  However, I feel that young readers will be enchanted by the Venetian background for the story.  "The Venetian setting is ripe for mystery and the city's alleys and canals ratchet up the suspense in the chase scenes." (PW 2002)  "The whole city was one invitation to play hide-and-seek." (Funke 13)  The magical aspects of the story carried out in the carousel add a unique contrast to the realistic setting of Venice.  Funke focuses on Scipio's need to be an adult and be heard.  He has to ride the carousel to become his own man, not just a lying Thief Lord.  As another critic said, "Funke delights readers in the feelings of childhood, what it feels like to be innocent, afraid, curious, and safe; need friends and love; and want independence yet also to be cared for." (Kirkus)

Story Extension:
Read Kai Meyer's The Water Mirror and compare the similarities and differences between the two German authors.  Note how the settings are alike as well.

Reference List:
Beach, Kevin.  2002.  VOYA: The thief lord review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).

deCastrique, Mark.  2002.  The five owls: The thief lord review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).

Kirkus Review.  n.d.  The thief lord review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  2002.  The thief lord review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006).

Rosser, Claire.  n.d.  KLIATT: The thief lord review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed March 1, 2006). 

 


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