As book-launch events go, this was a rather odd one. Co-sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Mattel, it was held in the bowels of the Javits Center during Book Expo America earlier this year, and there were no books in sight. Invited guests were given a choice of heavily besprinkled doughnuts (strawberry: Royals; blueberry: Rebels), a book bag and a nifty little journal. Most of the people I recognized had no doubt been lured to the event by the "Newbery Honor author" dangled by the invitation—I certainly had—even as the "Mattel" part made us nervous.
Munching my doughnut, I took my seat. At the front of the room was the expected presenters’ table, at the left of which were a set of dolls in bright packages. Various representatives of Mattel and Little, Brown, all clad in smart suits, mingled with the guests. Then the "Newbery Honor author" appeared: Shannon Hale!
Hale won her Newbery Honor in 2006 for the exquisite Princess Academy, which Kirkus hailed for the "precise lyricism" of its language. (Full disclosure: I was on that Newbery committee, and I am a confirmed fan of Shannon Hale.) She's also written the lovely Books of Bayern series, which begins with The Goose Girl, a reimagining of the Grimms’ tale of the same name; Book of a Thousand Days, which relocates another Grimms’ tale to Mongolia; and, with her co-author husband, Dean Hale, and illustrator Nathan Hale (no relation), Rapunzel's Revenge, a hysterical graphic novel that sets "Rapunzel" in the Wild West.
The event began. One of the Mattel reps talked about their new line of dolls: Ever After High. She used all sorts of words those of us in literary criticism and librarianship like to pretend don't exist: "synergy," "brand loyalty," "market saturation." The dolls are meant to expand on the success of previous Mattel/Little, Brown collaboration Monster High but with a fractured-fairy-tale angle. The scenario: The next generation of fairy-tale characters are at boarding school and getting ready to pledge their destinies in the Storybook of Legends. The Royals (Snow White's daughter, Apple White; Sleeping Beauty's daughter, Briar Beauty; etc.) are eager to take up their parents’ mantles and live out their stories as written. But the Rebels, led by Raven Queen (daughter of the Evil Queen, of course), want to live their own lives and to write their own stories. As the Mattel rep said of this setup, "Who better than Shannon Hale?"
Hale spoke briefly and enthusiastically about the project, stressing the amount of freedom she'd been given to develop the characters and place them in situations she hadn't dreamed Mattel would approve. Clearly, she had a great time with it. Equally clearly, those of us in the room who like to believe that literature is all about Art were confused. Much as we might decry the marketing-driven approach to children's books in general, we all really felt that if anyone could pull this off, it would be Shannon Hale.
And, by golly, she does. In the first book in the Ever After High series, The Storybook of Legends, Hale takes a concept created by Madison Avenue and has a total blast. She weaves story elements that were no doubt required by Mattel—lots of descriptions of groovy dresses and frankly dopey character names, as well as the basic plot—into a frothy, funny and smart story.
Raven’s academic adviser is the witch Baba Yaga, whose cottage runs away from Raven into the pig field; Hunter routinely rips off his shirt to the sound of invisible trumpets whenever he feels pressed to go to the rescue; a Shrinking Potion takes effect with an accompanying scent of hot, buttered toast. And that's not even looking at Hale's effervescent verbs. Characters who don't pledge their destinies “poof”; night "once-upons" instead of falling; a distressed Apple feels "cored.” Mystery and depth to come in subsequent books are heralded by the enigmatic Cerise Hood, around whom the Three Little Pigs become unaccountably anxious....
I don't know that I will ever fall in love with the larger mission of Ever After High, which plainly aims to empty the pockets of as many preteen girls (or their parents) as humanly possible. This whole "synergy" thing makes me nervous. But those girls who buy into the Ever After High concept whole hog and actually read Hale's book will have a high old time, and it's really hard to be disgruntled about that.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.