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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


*****The Goose Girl

by Shannon Hale

Reviewed November 24, 2003.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2003.  383 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (JF HAL).
Winner of the 2003 Josette Frank Award.
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  My Favorite Book of the Year

This is exactly my favorite kind of book, the retelling of a fairy tale, retold with sensitivity and insight.

We fall for princess Ani right away.  She’s an unusual child from birth, not opening her eyes for three days.  Her mother the queen doesn’t understand her, but her aunt does, and comes to tell Ani stories.

Ani’s parents are soon busy with her younger brother and sister, but Ani’s aunt spends time with her, telling her stories and teaching her how to understand the language of the birds.  I like it that although Ani has a gift, she has to learn the language, not understanding it instantaneously.

Ani’s aunt tells her about three kinds of gifts.  The first is the gift of people-speaking.  Ani’s mother has that gift, which is how she rules her kingdom so well.  So does the girl who’s destined to be Ani’s lady-in-waiting.  The second gift is speaking with animals.  The third gift is perhaps only a legend, speaking with nature, the wind and the trees.

Ani’s aunt must leave her as Ani grows, and the queen keeps her away from birds and anyone else who understands her longings.  We feel for Ani.  She knows she must grow up to be a queen, and she also is sure she won’t be as good at it as her mother.  Of course, from the title of the book and from the fairy tale, we know that she will suffer a change in fortune and be forced to be a goose girl before she can become a queen.  Shannon Hale makes that time as a goose girl an important time for Ani, where she learns self-reliance and also to see what life is like for the people of the land.

In fact, as I reread the fairy tale afterward, I decided that Shannon Hale’s changes were exactly right.  She does present Ani at the beginning as weak and lacking in self-confidence, just as in the fairy tale, which is how her lady-in-waiting can take advantage of her.  However, at the end, Ani’s fate doesn’t change because of an old king taking pity on her, but because she learns self-reliance as a goose girl and has even more powerful motivation to reveal the false princess’s perfidy.  The story is all the richer for the changes.

This is a wonderful, beautiful book.  As I read it, I felt a bit of jealousy.  This is precisely the sort of book I would like to write.  It’s the fairy tale variant that I love, almost perfectly told.  I decided to trade in the jealousy for inspiration.  This book reminded me strongly of Robin McKinley’s, and I read in her website that she loved Robin McKinley’s retellings of Beauty and the Beast.  I would be thrilled if some day someone would say that my books remind them of Shannon Hale’s.

In fact, I liked it so much, I sat down and read it a second time, to savor it over again and perhaps learn something.  I haven't done that since I read Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword.

I’m thankful that someone has written this magnificent book.  Shannon Hale has earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, so she worked to reach this level of skill.  This is her first novel.  I hope she will be extremely prolific!  If she can produce a few more like this, I think I will have a new favorite author.  I hope this book gains the recognition it deserves.  (The Bloomsbury website says she's planning a trilogy!  Hooray!)

Here’s a beautiful story with a sympathetic heroine who suffers adversity and is thrust on her own resources.  It’s got all the resonance of a fairy tale and the charm of a love story.  Highly recommended not only for teens, but also for children and adults.  This one truly spans all ages.

Reader comment:  Leah and her 12-year-old daughter give this five stars, too!

Shannon Hale Books

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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