The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m reading these for bookclub with my niece. She stumbled upon the series, and after reading the first one announced that she really needed someone else to read them so that she could talk about the book! Hooray for books generating community, even (or especially) the community between a niece and an aunt. By the time I got a chance to request the book from the library, she’d read the first three in the series, and thus so did I, and we discuss them next weekend. I meant to stagger them out over the week, to be ready to discuss them next Friday, but they were so good that I read all three this weekend. I am delighted with this series! It stars two sisters, age 11 and 7, who’s parents disappeared, leaving them to bounce around the foster care system for 1 1/2 years until a grandmother they didn’t know they had takes them in. It turns out that they are the great, great, great granddaughters of Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, and the Grimm family’s legacy is to record lives of the “everafter” folk who are all very much real and exiled in America, having sought freedom from persecution along the banks of the Hudson River over 200 years ago. The books are rich with danger and adventure, engaging with Fairy Tales in a real and interesting way. The fairy tale characters come out of the Grimm versions, not Disney, and so have a decided realistic and hard bent to them. The two sisters are likewise real girls, not two-dimensionally sweet, or seeking to be perfect. They are very much individuals, and the older girl, who is the point of view character, is understandably bitter from her experiences in being abandoned and then being in the foster system, and so does not initially embrace her new life as a Fairy Tale crime fighter. And the themes of good and evil are extremely complex, with most of the Everafter folk having a very real grudge against the Grimms, while the Grimms are trying to do the best for everyone. The oldest sister struggles with her own bigotry and distrust of the world, the younger sister is wonderfully peculiar and open-hearted. Puck, as an 11-year old boy, is mischievous and disgusting and everything you would hope Puck to be, but also wrestles with his desire to be a villian and the fact that he feels called to protect those he loves as his family.
As a child who read mostly “boy” books, not bonding with the “girlier” female protagonists in books and the themes those books dealt with like boys and emotions, I sought out the boy books for adventure and how to be a strong survivor in the world. And now here is a a “girl” book that does both. The girls are survivors, living many different adventures, getting by on their wits, courage and strength. The girls also get in trouble, disobey their elders, and are flawed in many ways, and they are also very much girls, in many layered and wonderful ways. When I was a kid playing imaginary games, living out the lives of made up characters, I was always a boy. Later, when I was thirteen and realizing that I was gay, I worried and wondered if this was gender confusion on my part, if I really did want to be a boy. But the answer then, and now, is no. I have always been, and will always be, a girl. It was just that, when I was a kid, I had very few role models of girls that were resourceful, strong, mischievous, liked getting dirty, liked being tough, and were always going off on adventures. That was solely the domain of boys in my childhood books, and thus I grew up a bit of a male chauvinist, thinking guys more capable than girls (girls other than myself). I grew up disdaining my gender, because I didn’t think my experience of being a girl was actually true and validated by the rest of the world. But now there are books that do validate my experience, and I am so glad that my niece has them.
All of the above makes this is truly a book featuring female protagonists that could be read by girls and boys alike. Last summer I went to hear my good friend, the poet Rebecca Lauren, talk at a Front Porch talk for the James River Writers group, and the group focused on writing for girls (as inspired by the moderators “Girls of Summer” reading list/website http://girlsofsummerlist.wordpress.com/. And, for me, one of the most interesting threads of conversation, was that while girls often read books about boy protagonists, it was just as vital for boys to read books featuring girls. Reading these books will provide just as much adventure to the boy reader as the Ranger’s Apprentice series does, but it will also sneak in the very real insight that girls truly are as capable as boys. That is an essential lesson for both boys and girls alike.
The reading level is likely at a 3rd or 4th grade level (I’m not really good at judging that), but even with all the complex scenes, it was absolutely age appropriate from my 7 year old niece, with no too scary monsters or violence or more adult moments. Also, as an added perk, I think any kid reading these books will feel impelled to seek out the source material for these books, and thus read the old Fairy Tales of Grimm and Anderson and others.