In My Very UnFairy Tale Life, Jenny is an adventurer—her job is to go into the world of fairy tales and help them solve their problems. Her primary skill seems to be spouting self-described cheesy aphorisms, but the magical critters think she’s wise. She’s apparently the best adventurer they’ve had for a long time. At the age of twelve, she’s already been doing this for a few years and it’s pretty much taken over her life. Any romance it once had has totally worn off, and the poor girl really wants a break.
Overall, despite her quite non-traditional life, Jenny is a pretty normal kid. She’s tired of the responsibilities that come with growing up, and she’s not sure yet how to take things into her own hands. She thinks she knows what she wants, but unsurprisingly what she wants isn’t as perfect as she thinks it will be.
Although others view her as something pretty spectacular, Jenny doubts her abilities and doesn’t understand how her actions can be all that great. She doesn’t really know where the clichéd sayings come from—in fact they often make her wince, even as they’re coming out of her mouth—and she never quite feels like she knows what she’s doing. Her greatest skill seems to be that she takes action and tries to solve problems—she’s active in a mostly passive world. Plus, in the end her skill at minigolf saves the day.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Creepy and Weird
Klarr, the main villain, is a clown with a circus tent castle. He controls people by taking away their ability to speak and complain by literally removing their mouths—there’s nothing but skin where the mouth used to be—and he makes his prisoners do acts in his circus. Laughter hurts him, and in the end we learn that his mouth is where his nose should be. He’s all kinds of freaky.
The committee that gives orders to the adventurers is very strict. They all look identical and do things in unison; there is major security around them, making them inaccessible and putting a lot of power in their hands. They fully expect to be unquestioningly obeyed.
Family & Friends
Jenny is very alone in life—her friends no longer know her because of her adventuring. She finds out that this is because their memories have been modified to protect the fairy tale world, which horrifies her. However, she also starts to realize that some of her isolation is her doing—it’s true that her aunt doesn’t know what to talk to her about, but she also makes no effort to talk to her aunt.
Jenny’s parents have been missing for years. This isn’t dealt with all that much, although there are hints that it may be important in future novels.
Jenny is terrified of Klarr the clown, which is part of what makes her decide she should stop being an adventurer. She doesn’t want to face him again and is certain she’ll fail anyway. In the end, she does face him down with the help of some of the fairy tale creatures who find the courage to join her.
Because of her skill as an adventurer, Jenny feels locked into doing something whether she wants to or not. Even though it’s something that started out as fun, she comes to resent it as she feels like she has no control over her life. In the end, she comes back to it because it’s her own choice and she gets the committee to make some concessions for her. I’m sure more than a few kids can identify with what Jenny is going through, although it’s more likely a sport, dance, instrument, etc. that takes up huge amounts of their time.
Jenny learns that responsibility to others is important, but so is looking out for yourself. Choosing either at the cost of the other is a bad plan.
Those who have a responsibility to Jenny have almost uniformly failed her utterly. They’re ineffectual or make the wrong choices, leaving her no better off and sometimes worse off than she was before. She learns to do things for herself and eventually how to communicate with others so that they can help her more effectively.
Grabbing hold of life isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be—it doesn’t change everything for the better. When Jenny stops being an adventurer, she realizes that life isn’t all fun and games. She also realizes in retrospect that there were parts of it she really liked. Still, taking charge of her life was the right decision, and it’s what allows her to go back to being an adventurer, this time on her own terms.
The problems with keeping secrets, even to protect people, are brought out. You end up feeling trapped, isolated, and hurt. This issue is tied up a bit too neatly at the end for my taste—suddenly Jenny is allowed to share her secret life with her best friends who will apparently keep this secret that would endanger all the fairy tale characters if it got out—but it didn’t ruin the ending or anything.
TV & Media
There’s a mild message of imagination being better than TV—Jenny’s friends are more attracted to TV after their memories have been modified. They obsess about celebrities and seem rather slack jawed and dull. Once they again remember Jenny, they go back to their normal imaginative selves.
The book is appropriate for ages 8-12. It’s a fun story, full of talking frogs, grumpy unicorns, and other magical creatures. Jenny’s issues are easy for most tweens to identify with. I couldn’t help drawing parallels to the activities that consume my own kids’ time (although we make sure they know that we won’t be disappointed with them if at some point they decide the sacrifices are too much).
This novel may appeal to reluctant readers—despite the fairy tale theme, the content isn’t childish, and the text itself shouldn’t pose too many challenges.
She liked it overall, though it wasn’t what she expected. She thinks it’s funny and ironic (as well as weird and creepy) that the villain is a clown.
My Very UnFairy Tale Life by Anna Staniszewski
Published in 2011 by Sourcebook Jabberwocky
First in a trilogy, followed by My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending
Read my daughter’s hard copy