Two parentless sisters move in with their grandmother and discover their family has a secret job: policing a rural New York town that’s really a ghetto-prison for fairy-tale creatures. When a giant climbs down a verboten beanstalk and kidnaps their grandmother, the sisters must figure out who’s behind the plot so they can save their grandmother . . . and the town.
Theme: Friends come in the most unexpected guises. So do foes. Be careful who you trust, but do trust.
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1. This book made me laugh out loud: 4. The book starts out seriously, but gets funnier as you read. I would have read this book for one character alone—a character called Puck who appears around the middle of the book. Once he horns in on the two-girl team, the slapstick really gets rolling and rounds out the other funny elements (like the names of some of the characters).
The only funnier middle-grade fantasies I’ve read are the ones by Terry Pratchett, and he came to middle-grade writing with a whole bunch of experience writing other books. I look forward to reading Michael Buckley’s next books, because I figure that with more experience, he’ll get even funnier.
2. This book has good action: 3. There is enough action, but the writer could have done a better job of showing action rather than telling you about it, especially early in the book. For example, a telling sentence such as “Tony leaped up and rushed at Mr. Canis again, only to feel the same painful results” would have been more effective as something like “Tony leaped up and rushed at Mr. Canis again, swinging his iron bar. Mr. Canis dodged left and the bar flew past, missing him. Tony crashed to pavement, dropping the bar and scraping his hands and knees on the hard concrete.”
3. This book is suspenseful: 3. If you have read a lot of fairy tales and are observant, you might figure out some of the mysteries before the girls do, although I don’t think you’ll guess what’s in the forbidden locked room on the second floor of Granny’s house.
There’s a neat detective-story twist toward the end of the book, and most readers will probably find it surprising . . . but surprising isn’t quite the same as suspenseful.
The town is menaced by a master criminal whose identity is not revealed, and it’s clear the girls are destined to tangle with this character later books. I am pretty darn sure I know the identity of this mysterious individual, but I’m a grownup and a writer, and I’ve have read a ton of fairy tales. See if you can guess, too.
4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. I enjoyed this ending. By the end of the book, the girls solve the mystery. They change as a result of their experiences during the story, their relationship with each other changes, and one of the major problems in their lives is resolved. Some loose ends are left hanging on purpose so the girls have plenty of stuff left to do in the next books. A great scene near the end makes it clear that one of my favorite characters will play a bigger role in future books in the series.
5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 5. Yes. Really liked the Sisters Grimm. A lot.
1. How old is the main character? Sabrina Grimm is almost 12. Her sister, Daphne, is 7.
2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes, the two sisters are a really good team and their Grandma’s dog Elvis, a Great Dane, is like a third member of the group. When Puck shows up, the trio becomes a foursome and the group gets even better.
3. Is this a series or just one book? I’m happy to say it’s a series.
4. Does it get off to a fast start? The author has used an old trick to get you hooked. He put an action scene from late in the book at the very beginning. I think the trick works well. The first chapter, which starts right after that action scene, isn’t action-packed, but it’s really interesting and will keep you reading. This is one of those books where the characters will grab you as much as the action. For example, you will probably wish you had a little sister like Daphne. (I did.)
5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yup. Several. There are several mean ones, too.
6. Does is get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? Nope.
1. What’s the major source of suspense? This is a fairy-tale fantasy-mystery: a new genre that works really well in the hands of this writer. There are several sources of suspense in the book: Were the girls really abandoned by their parents? If not, what happened to Mom and Dad? Is the woman they meet at the beginning of the book really their grandmother? Who is the mysterious Mr. Canus? Who let the giant loose in Ferryport Landing and why? Will the girls save their grandmother from the giant?
Once your kids catch on to the fact that almost everyone the sisters meet in Ferryport Landing is a fairytale character in disguise who’s living under an assumed name, they’ll also have the fun of guessing who’s who.
As an adult, you’ll wonder why kindly Grandma Grimm left the kids to fend for themselves a year before coming forward to claim them. It’s hard to believe she’d do this, and the reason she waited is not explained in the book.
2. Which classic fairytale elements does this book contain? Missing parents, for one. Missing or dead parents—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say orphaned or abandoned children—are such a pervasive component of fantasies that I’ve decided my next non-review blog post will include a table showing the fate of parents in all the books I’ve reviewed so far.
Other people have written plenty of pages about why writers get parents out of the way in fantasies, so I don’t think I’ll go into that topic in depth, but I’ll go out on the Web and find some of the best analyses so I can give you those links.
The Sisters Grimm also contains tons of fairytale and fantasy creatures, from the Tin Woodsman to the magic mirror to the odious Prince Charming and all the wives who ever divorced him (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and I forget who else). There are a zillion magical items—from beanstalk beans to silver slippers—and there’s a dark forest, classically located right smack behind Grandma’s house. There are monsters, or at least there’s one kind of monsters: giants.
3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? The concepts of tolerance and intolerance are never discussed outright, but they underlie the book. If the Grimms ever figure out how to safely break the spell keeping the fairytale creatures imprisoned in the town, the world will have to tolerate the creatures, and the creatures will have to live in the midst of a majority population that’s very different from them in many ways. Perhaps the issues of tolerance and intolerance will come to the fore more in future books in this series.
4. Is there profanity or violence? There’s no profanity. There is violence. For example, you see a giant stomp on a house when three thugs are inside. It’s not clear, however, if the three thugs are magical creatures or not, and it’s also not clear whether or not magical creatures can be killed. On the one hand, all three little pigs are running around, alive and well. On the other, a major magical item gets pulverized in the course of the book. So can magical creatures be destroyed in the world of this series? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.
The only violence I thought an eight or nine-year-old reader might find disturbing was when the bad guy injures Elvis the Great Dane near the end of the book. You don’t witness the attack, though, and the writer makes sure the reader knows that the dog will be OK.
I would have let my son read this book from whenever he was capable of reading it, which in his case would have been about age nine. I would have read it out loud to him earlier than that.
5. How about mature themes or dark creatures?
a. Mean foster parents and a cruel case worker. At the beginning of the book, the children, whose parents have disappeared, have been shuttled from one awful foster family to another for about a year, and their case worker is real thus-and-so. Sabrina, the older sister, has spent the entire time protecting her younger sister, but also bossing Daphne around and not listening to her.
Sabrina has understandable problems with trust, and learns to trust her grandmother and respect her sister’s wishes and strengths over the course of the book. This is a mature theme, but it’s handled in a way I think is fine for middle-grade readers.
On the other hand, if you are a foster parent, someone who knows a foster family—or even if you are one of the thousands of decent, caring, respectful caseworkers out there—you might take offense at the stereotypical depictions of foster parents and caseworkers.
You might want to talk with your kids about foster families and case workers: are all of them as mean as the ones in the book?
b. Giants and witches. The giants in the book are unintelligent monsters. There are witches working in law enforcement. They are employed by Prince Charming, the mayor of the town.
6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? There is no mention of religion or God in the book, and no such themes flowing around under the surface, either, as far as I could tell.
7. How about politics? Ferryport Landing, NY is a lovely little microcosm of early 21st century American politics, which makes this book awfully fun reading for a grownup. None of the characters represents an actual politician, but you could argue that they represent streams of political thought and/or caricatures of types of politicians/employers.
The narcissistic traditionalist Prince Charming is mayor of the town, and it’s clear he wants to make it into his own kingdom, but he’s an elected leader. He intimidates some fairytale creatures into doing his bidding—especially those he employs—but he doesn’t intimidate all of them, a situation that will probably be familiar to many adult readers from their own working lives. Charming has some law-and-order and taxation headaches, and his authority is questioned by a number of citizens, including the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland and the mysterious terrorist insurgency leader The Red Hand (note the color—I doubt it’s an accident). Others, such as Puck the trickster king, have apparently been sniffing libertarian pixie dust. They ignore the Prince and do their own thing.
You might want to talk with your children about the political agendas in Ferryport Landing. Which of the creatures do you/they sympathize with? What do you think of their various political plans, and why do you feel this way?
8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? This book is full of strong and highly awesome female characters. Puck, a boy who has been 11 years old for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, comes onstage about halfway through the book. He makes a number of idiotic sexist remarks to Sabrina when they first meet and she gives him the what-for. It quickly becomes clear that Puck has a sensitive ego, and Daphne, who has a great deal of emotional intelligence, tries to convince Sabrina to let Puck think he’s in charge. It’s hard to tell if the writer is trying to portray Puck as having a sensitive male ego or if Puck’s simply jealous of the girls for other reasons and is sensitive because of that. I lean toward the latter, but it might be both. These scenes would make a great topic for discussion with your kids.
9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? Yes, the ghettoization of minority populations, especially as perpetrated by Germans. The Sisters Grimm is in large part about the fairytale creatures that one of the (German) Grimm brothers persuaded to move to a small, rural town in New York during the 1700s. The idea was that the town would serve as a sanctuary from growing conflicts between fairytale creatures and the non-enchanted majority population in places such as . . . wait for it . . . Germany (but also elsewhere). However, the town soon became a fairytale-ghetto/prison with the Grimm family as guards. A spell was cast, and no fairytale creature can leave the town until the last Grimm dies.
In a neat twist, very, very few of the fairytale creatures are dangerous, and some who were dangerous in their original stories have changed their ways. Even the giants pose no threat as long as the cops keep the magic beans out of circulation. In other words, there’s apparently no reason for the fairy tale creatures to be imprisoned . . . other than that some of them are powerful, and all of them are different from the majority population.
As you may have guessed, an eerie, Warsaw-Ghetto vibe lurks under the often-humorous surface of this book. The author recognizes this, although he never uses the word “ghetto” and never refers to the Second World War or 20th century European history. He does, however, let his two main characters feel the wrongness of the situation in the town and the awkwardness (to put it mildly) of their family’s role multiple times throughout the book.
This is not a heavy book in any obvious way, and your child will almost certainly breeze right by this theme without plumbing its depths. On the other hand, I think it’s a good idea to notice, and you might want to talk about it. Why are the fairyland creatures imprisoned in the town? Are they really dangerous? Was it OK to imprison the creatures? Is it OK to keep them in prison now that all the magic beans, fairy godmother wands and other magical items are locked way in protective custody?
10. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? No, I think an eight or nine-year-old should be able to read this book.
11. How’s the writing? Solid. The writer has a flair for comedy but needs to work on showing rather than telling in action sequences. He did a better job of “showing” in the final action sequences, which left me wondering if he used “telling” on purpose in the beginning to save words, or perhaps as a riff on traditional fairy-tale style.
12. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, no odd spelling or bad grammar here.