When you look at the cover of Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends, you can imagine the tie-in dolls (and they look about as you’d imagine). Normally neither my daughter nor I would be intrigued by a book whose copyright is held by Mattel. But then I noticed that it was written by Shannon Hale, and suddenly I had to know.
And it turns out that it’s a pretty good book. It’s an amusing story with tons of breadcrumbs for fairytale fans, with “fairytale” defined very loosely (nursery rhymes, Robin Hood, Pinocchio, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland all count). One of the characters can hear the Narrator, so there’s some fun interplay there with what a book is, the role of the Narrator, etc. The idea of the series is that the kids of famous fairytale characters all attend a boarding high school together. They know the roles their parents played, and they’re destined to follow in those footsteps.
The plot reminds me a bit of the musical Wicked, which my daughter and I just saw for the first time. Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen of Snow White fame (among others), ends up rooming with the very popular Apple White, daughter of Snow. Raven isn’t all that evil, and isn’t sure she wants to grow up to be a megalomaniacal villain. But if she doesn’t fill her role in the story, what will happen to Apple’s happily-ever-after? Much rests on her young head, and of course most of the adults have a vested interest in not helping her make an informed decision.
My daughter remained skeptical even after I was willing to give the book a chance, but she loved it as soon as she started reading it—once she got over the names of the characters. Yeah, it’s a world filled with characters designed by Mattel to sell toys. But with Shannon Hale as our guide, it’s a lot of fun.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Let’s not forget this is still one big commercial. There are toys and a website and more books to come. But as long as you go in with your eyes open and with a decision made about how far down this rabbit hole you’re willing to let your kid go, it’s actually a pretty good book. The website has games, more stories, animated adventures, and of course links to buying the dolls. Oddly, it has no links for buying or researching the novels.
The princesses are well aware that they’re princesses. They don’t mingle too much with the commoners like Maddie Hatter. Raven is technically royalty, but with her evil lineage she’s not exactly welcome among the Royals; lots of her peers are afraid of her based on her mother’s reputation and the role Raven is destined to play. In the end, she stakes her claim as a Rebel (these are labels you’ll find for the dolls, too—it’s a marketing thing).
However, the princesses aren’t all stuck up jerks, either. They’re fairly fleshed out characters, caught up in the same web of destiny that entangles the Rebels.
“Choice” is a bad word at Ever After High. It’s your duty to fulfill your proper role in your story. The only way stories survive is for these kids to step up and retell them. For some, that’s awesome. Sure, you might have to eat a poisoned apple or two, but that cute boy, Daring Charming, will come and save you. For some, that’s not so great. It means painful death, often after doing horrible things. Or ending up with your destined spouse, even though you fell in love with someone else from a different tale. But you’re supposed to be willing to make this sacrifice for the good of the story.
There’s a rumor that if you refuse to sign the book that locks you into this role, you and your story will go “poof!” and be forgotten. This puts a lot of responsibility on all the characters in a story. Alternately, going beyond your role (a sin Raven’s mother committed) is just as bad—she overreached and became the villain in lots of other stories, throwing things into chaos until she was locked away in a mirror.
The main theme of the book is whether you really do have a choice when faced with the overwhelming expectations of family and society. Of course in the end, there’s always a choice, although not without consequences.
Secrets & Trust
Oh, the secrets. First of all, pretty much all of the adults are less than trustworthy. They might be well meaning but ineffectual, like Raven’s father. They might be trying to live on through their children, like Raven’s mother. They might have their own possibly evil agenda, like Headmaster Grimm. They might just be vindictive, like Raven’s advisor Baba Yaga who uses techniques that worked for training her cats when they misbehaved—she repeatedly squirts water in Raven’s face. But all of them either can’t or won’t give Raven honest answers about what happens if she decides not to sign the book.
Raven therefore is on her own. She ends up keeping secrets from pretty much everyone in her life as she tries to figure out who she can trust. She does end up trusting lots of people, but always while keeping secrets from others.
There is a ton of dishonesty and trickery, although it’s mostly good intentioned.
The Royals are all friends with each other in mostly superficial ways. They have shared experiences and expectations, and they know where they all stand socially. Apple and Raven do become actual friends as they try to figure out what happens if Raven refuses to play her evil role. However, whether or not that friendship can survive Raven standing up for herself is another question.
Raven has to learn to depend on her friends, even when she isn’t sure what they’ll think about what she feels she needs to do. In the process, she also learns that she has support in unexpected places.
Princess tales are notoriously sexist. The girls do have to go to Damsel in Distress class where they practice how to survive the tedium of being locked in a tower. However, when the princes are delayed and won’t arrive in time to rescue them before class ends, the teacher tells the girls that they need to rescue themselves. Each girl uses her unique talent or ability to get herself out of the tower.
Humphrey Dumpty is Humpty’s kid. How could Humpty have a kid if he ended up in pieces? Well, although all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again, it turns out that all the king’s women had no problem with that puzzle.
The Hunter has a signature move before he rescues anyone—he tears off his shirt. While most find this kind of odd, some of the girls don’t mind so much because he’s pretty ripped.
Beauty & Vanity
Beauty, of course, is important. The Royals always look beautiful—they don’t sweat, they glisten. Apple is an interestingly conflicted character. She’s gorgeous, which she knows how to use to her advantage. However, she wants people to notice her for her interpersonal and organizational skills. She knows she’s going to be queen, and she wants to be really good at it. On the other hand, she refuses to wear her glasses and faces a slightly fuzzy world due to vanity. Raven calls her on it and convinces her to wear them sometimes, but there’s no “My glasses look great!” revelation. She still won’t wear them around most of her classmates.
The setting is partially modern. There are cell phones and the fashions—described in some detail—sound like things you might see teens on TV shows wearing.
There’s a scene with a ton of bugs and spiders that might be creepy for kids who are particularly bothered by such things.
Raven and Apple find a skeleton in a cave which is apparently all that remains of a girl their age who defied her destiny.
At some point, Raven realizes that she can start finding the answers she needs if she really pays attention. She starts to notice little details about her friends and classmates. She finds people who are like-minded but too nervous to stand up like she is. When she stops being absorbed by her problems and really notices the people, things, and details around her, she also starts finding help in solving her problems.
Despite my reservations, I had fun reading this. If my daughter were younger, I might even be ok with her getting sucked into the dolls and website a bit (her interests have moved on, though). The story is clever, the plot encourages thought about choices and expectations. With the toy and website tie-ins, I’m guessing they’re aiming for 8 and up, and it’s a good choice for young precocious readers. It’s also fun for older readers, even though they may not buy into the whole Ever After High line of products. As my daughter noted, it’s a pretty book—each page has a color border. Shannon Hale is apparently slated to write at least the first three novels in this series.
Shannon Hale has written short stories for the individual characters, available for free on Kindle:
Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends by Shannon Hale
Published in 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
First in a series
Read my personal copy