When Fairy Tale Retelling Fails

As you know if you visit here regularly, I love retold fairy tales.  But…not always.  Unfortunately, including fairy tale elements is not a guarantee of a high quality book (just a usually promising sign).  Towards the end of last year, I read a book that made this abundantly clear: The Frog Princess, by E. D. Baker.

On Monday, I mentioned that I could name lots of characters from Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles.  As for The Frog Princess…I can’t think of a single name.  Granted, I only read it once and it was a few months ago…but I don’t think it’s entirely me.

Illustration from "The Frog Prince." Emma's not this pretty.

The princess (I’ll look up her name to make this easier to describe–Emma) is one of a big crop of ordinary princesses who seem to turn up in books often.  She’s not pretty enough and she trips and she doesn’t like dancing.  Without trying, I can think of three other books with princesses like that (plus one Cinderella), and most of them have more going on to make the heroines interesting.  Cimorene, from Enchanted Forest, doesn’t like her princess lessons, so she bullies various people at the castle to teach her other things, like cooking and fencing and sorcery.  That’s interesting.  I’m not sure what Emma does, other than irritate her mother and run off to the swamp sometimes.

In the swamp, she meets a talking frog who claims to be a prince.  After a lot of balking about kissing him (by the way–he’s a talking frog and all he wants is for you to kiss him so he can be human again–just do it, it’s not asking that much and what’s the worst that could happen?) she goes ahead and does.  Only to turn into a frog herself (okay, I guess bad things could happen).  Sound a lot like the Disney movie?  I’m not sure the precise connection, but at least some editions of this have a label saying it’s the inspiration for the movie, so they must have bought rights or something.

Unfortunately, the book only had the one good idea.  Disney, wisely, used that single idea and nothing else.  Emma and the frog (Eadric, I looked him up too) go off to find the witch who enchanted him, and have a series of adventures along the way.  Which is all well and good, but kind of like Emma doesn’t stand out at all as an ordinary princess, the adventures and the world they’re in don’t stand out either.  There was nothing at all distinctive about it.  I’m not looking for Tolkien, who invented entire languages for his magical races.  But when you have a generic princess having generic adventures in a generic magical kingdom…not very memorable.

If all this genericness was the backdrop to something else–funny scenes or interesting relationships between the characters–this still might be passable.  But it’s really not that funny.  A few “help, I’m a frog” jokes.

The relationships were overwhelmingly flat too.  No one had any depths of emotion.  I’d forgotten the characters’ names, but I did remember a scene where they’re talking about something or other, and Emma tells Eadric he’s her best friend.  This should be revelatory.  They haven’t known each other long, they spend as much time arguing as not, it’s not like saying that to an old friend who already knows it.  Yet Emma says it off-hand, and Eadric–doesn’t react!  I think I actually stared at the page for a few seconds wondering if I’d missed something.

Sometimes I’ve heard someone comment that they don’t expect as much depth in children’s or young adult books.  It’s a comment I actually disagree with–children’s and YA books may cover different emotions and perhaps explore them in different ways than books for grown-ups, but the good ones will still have depth.  There is no reason a children’s book can’t sound deeper emotions in the areas of friendship, finding one’s place in the world, dealing with a life-altering situation, falling in love for the first time or going on an extremely dangerous quest.  But I think those people who don’t expect depth are imagining a book just like The Frog Princess.  It’s a kid’s book, so even though all that’s going on, we don’t really need to explore any of it.

I rarely recommend a movie over a book, but in this case, if you want a story about a girl turning into a frog, watch the Disney movie.

Author’s site: http://www.edbakerbooks.com/

Disney’s site for The Princess and the Frog

One thought on “When Fairy Tale Retelling Fails

  1. Diane

    I like your defense of good quality children’s books having the same depth of emotion as adult books. I would think it would actually be harder to do in a child’s book, at their age level and vocabulary, than it would be when writing for adults. Why should it be “okay” for kids’ books not to convey as much in the way of “deep” emotions or experiences? That’s just wrong, and the mark of a mediocre book or author.

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