Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Fairy-Tale Detectives

by Michael Buckley
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 1 in The Sisters Grimm series

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are orphans who, after a failed string of foster homes, are being shuttled off to their grandmother's house in a remote village. There's only one problem: before they disappeared, their parents told them that their grandmother was dead. The woman who comes to pick them up from the train station, Granny Grimm, is cuddly-looking enough, and Daphne, who's 7, likes her immediately. But Sabrina is 11 and feels she bears the mantle of responsibility for the two sisters; after so many horrible experience with other foster families, she doesn't trust "Granny" one bit.

This suspicion doesn't dim upon seeing Granny's house - it's a sweet little nook, but it borders a dark forest and has a dozen locks on the front door. Books about the house bear strange titles like "365 Ways to Cook a Dragon", and the spaghetti noodles they're served for dinner are, well, black. After that, Sabrina has had enough of crazy and decides they'll escape that night, only to discover that the forest is inhabited by... pixies??

I really enjoyed this book. It's written for a younger audience and rather reminiscent of the first Harry Potter book in that way, only instead of creating a new magical world, Buckley reinvents the magic of folk and fairy tales. The book is chock-full of magical creatures from legend: fairies, giants, magic mirrors, flying carpets, and many, many more. Granny, who (slight spoiler!) turns out to be legit, explains to the girls that the fairy creatures call themselves Everafters and are trapped in the town by an ancient bargain with Wilhelm Grimm, a Grimm Brother and their own ancestor: as long as a Grimm lives in Ferryport Landing, all the Everafters are kept there too. Granny acts as town detective by investigating strange occurrences, and before the girls are even settled, there's a mystery a-brewing.

It's really a brilliant cast of supporting characters - I don't want to say too much for fear of revealing all the fun! - but Buckley draws from fantasy both old and new. After Granny and her sidekick Mr. Canis (three guesses as to which Everafter he is, Latin-lovers!) are captured by a rampaging giant, Sabrina and Daphne - and Granny's intelligent Great Dane, Elvis - must figure out a way to rescue them and solve the mystery. The girls are aided, and in Sabrina's case, irritated by a young rogue they meet in the woods named...can you guess?... Puck. (The girls don't recognize the name, Sabrina having only gotten to Romeo and Juliet in school.)

Both the girls are smart and courageous, though in different ways: Sabrina is tough and wary, while Daphne is open-minded and good at creating bonds. They're wonderfully realistic as sisters. I particularly loved Sabrina's character because Buckley is so sympathetic toward her:
"How was I supposed to know?" Sabrina cried. "Anybody would have thought she was crazy!"
"I didn't," Daphne said, finally breaking her silence.
"You don't count. You believe everything," Sabrina argued.
"And you don't believe in anything," the little girl snapped. "Why are we even talking? You don't care what I think, anyway."
"That's not true!" Sabrina said, but before the words had left her mouth she knew they were a lie. What Daphne thought hadn't mattered in a long, long time, at least not since their parents had deserted them. But it wasn't like Sabrina wanted it that way. She was only eleven and didn't want to have to make all the decisions for both of them. She would love to feel like a kid and not have to worry about whether they were safe. But that wasn't how things were.
Buckley's writing is often very funny, and the story moves along at a great pace. It's a treat to read, never knowing which fun character might show up on the next page, and there are clear through lines set up in this first book for the rest of the series. All in all, I thought it was fantastic, and I'll definitely be picking up the next one at the library soon!

(On a random note: what is it with orphans in children's books? I can probably list ten books off the top of my head featuring them... there should be a subset of children's lit studies devoted to orphan tales!)


  1. It's not quite a separate discipline, but the absent parent is a pretty strong theme in children's literature studies.

    Do you use Goodreads at all? Amy Bennett-Zendzian (I don't know if you'd know her, but she's a T@F stalwart) is on there and she's working on her PhD in the field, so she reads and recommends a lot of great YA titles. That's where I post most of my reviews these days and I'd love to share them with you.

  2. Elizabeth, it's hilarious that you asked: I have the GoodReads homepage open on my browser for the first time right now. I hadn't heard of it before I started blogging and I'm still not quite sure what it is, but if it has anything to do with books I'm sure I'll get into it soon! ;)

    YA is almost an entirely new discipline for me - somehow I skipped those years in my reading history and went straight from children's classics to adult reading. I'm trying to rectify the gap now and would love any recommendations!

  3. I think I read somewhere that often times they have to explain away parental absence to make it more child-centered and to make the realists out there go "why are these parents letting their children do ....".

    It's too funny that I just reviewed this same book yesterday, a short review but I absolutely loved this one and added the series to my elementary library collection this year because of it.

    Oh and I second joining Goodreads, it's a great way to keep track of your books, join discussion groups about books you love and even win free books! If you join, look into the group Wild Things: YA Grown-Up. Love that group. I'm hosting the seasonal challenge right now which is a ton of fun.

  4. Well, definitely add me as a friend and you can find Amy on my f-list. I find it a nice way to keep what-I've-read organized and maintain a to-read list, as well as sharing my reviews with friends and getting recommendations.

    One feature I didn't find for a while was a direct link to our library's online system--find the "book links" tab at the top of your profile to set those up.

    Anyway, will look forward to seeing you there!