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Zel
Donna Jo Napoli
Dutton's Children's Books, 227 pages

Zel
Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli lives in Swarthmore, PA with her husband and their five children. She has received three degrees from Harvard including a Ph.D. in General and Romance Linguistics. Currently, she is a professor of linguistics and chair of the linguistics program at Swarthmore College, where she also teaches courses in writing fiction for children. Her work include Soccer Shock, The Magic Circle, The Prince of the Pond and its sequel, Jimmy, The Pickpocket of the Palace.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Lisa DuMond

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When was the last time you really felt the wonder and magic of a fairy tale? If your answer evokes wistful sighs and memories of growth charts, it's time to get back in the land of make-believe -- and no matter what your age, here is the book that can bring that sense of enchantment back. Ignore the children's book imprint and embrace Zel; you'll feel better and so will she.

Zel, as the dust jacket blurbs will inform you if the winsome cover illustration doesn't clue you in, is that lonely heroine, Rapunzel. And she will grow her hair to enormous lengths and live in an isolated tower and meet the boy of her dreams.

And that is where the similarities end. Though set in the 16th century and told in the style of that era, this is a thoroughly modern fleshing-out of the old fairy tale. This is the story-behind-the-story. The inside scoop, if you will, of one of those charming bedtime narratives that kept you up long into the night, wide-eyed and wondering just what your parents really had planned for you and why it was so important you not miss summer camp.

Zel takes us into the minds of the three central figures in this story: Rapunzel, her "mother," and her suitor. We see the truth, lies, and motivations unfold from all three viewpoints, and it is an eye-opener. No one who reads this mesmerizing novel will ever look at fairy tales the same way. Unless you were a lost cause to begin with, in which case, the world probably is not clamouring for your analysis, anyway.

One of Napoli's key achievements is her grasp of human nature. Some of the acts in Zel are less than admirable, but Napoli isn't seeking to place blame. She presents people, with their flaws and fears and little kindnesses, not the villains and dashing princes of your standard fairy tale. No wonder children grow out of Mother Goose; real people are so much more interesting. If Napoli were to re-examine the entire Grimm's line, I'd get on the waiting list for each volume.

Don't expect a happily-ever-after stock ending. The resolutions here are both more complex and more satisfying. The depth of the characters and the rich texture of the prose combine to create people and a place readers can envision and care about.

One bit of advice: although this is from Dutton's children's division, it is doubtful young children will understand the subtleties of the novel. Chances are they will miss the beautifully handled love scenes, but bear in mind that they are present. If a young person can read the dust jacket and select the book for themselves, that would seem to be a good indicator that they are ready for it. And anyone from that stage up will find themselves longing to finish Zel in one sitting; it's one of those things you don't want interrupted.

Copyright © 1998 Lisa DuMond

Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. She co-authored the 45th anniversary issue cover of MAD Magazine. Previews of her latest, as yet unpublished, novel are available at Hades Online.


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