Vivian Vande Velde,
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem
(Houghton Mifflin, 2000)

Of all the fairy and folk tales in the world, I like "Rumpelstiltskin" the least. None of the characters are particularly admirable, and the only one who keeps his word is Rumpelstiltskin himself -- and he's hardly a prize.

Apparently Vivian Vande Velde shares my feelings and has even more questions about the tale than I do. In six short stories, Vande Velde turns the tale inside out and upside down, and each retelling handily outstrips the original.

Vande Velde begins with an author's note that is every bit as good as the stories. Here she describes her difficulties with the story and the questions it raises in her mind. The stories in this collection are her various answers.

Each story tells the same basic tale with variations. In "A Fairly Tale in Bad Taste," Rumpelstiltskin is the villain, a troll with a longing to taste baby flesh. His convoluted plan to acquire a baby doesn't take into account that maybe the miller's daughter and the kindly king aren't as stupid as he assumes they are. "Straw Into Gold" casts Rumpelstiltskin as the hero who helps the miller's daughter see things in a different light.

"The Domovoi" transplants the tale to Russia and features a very confused house spirit who can't understand why he can't keep his household happy. In "Papa Rumpelstiltskin," a well-meaning miller has to think fast to get his daughter out of the jam in which his thoughtless bragging places her.

"Ms. Rumpelstiltskin" tells about a bitter woman longing for a child of her own to assuage her loneliness. Vande Velde slips in a neat twist at the end. The final story features the king, in this case, a young king named Gregory, ruler of a small, embattled country who is besieged by a miller's daughter determined to snare a royal spouse.

Vande Velde's with is sharp and acerbic, and the stories demonstrate amply the range of her imagination. The book is brief, just over 100 pages, and the stories hold up well to repeated readings. This would be a nifty book for read-aloud occasions with listeners of all ages.

Whether you loathe or love "Rumpelstiltskin," you'll enjoy seeing how Vivian Vande Velde solves The Rumpelstiltskin Problem.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 4 July 2001

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