Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review - "Once Upon a Toad"

Fairy tales are fluid things. To offer one of my favorite quotes, “The story is like the wind. It comes from a far off place, and we feel it.”* We tell each other these stories, and the details change across countries and languages, but the spirit transcends barriers. I love this about these stories. Fairy tales are often intended to teach lessens, and some do so obliquely and some put the moral right in your face. In the case of Heather Vogel Frederick’s Once Upon a Toad, loosely based on the tale by Charles Perrault called “Diamonds and Toads” (as well as other variations), the moral is fairly straightforward, but the getting there is all the fun. 

[WARNING: There be spoilers ahead.] Cat Starr is your average bassoon playing, nature loving, astronaut-Mom having 12-year-old. Life is good for Cat, until her mother gets called up last minute for a mission to the International Space Station. This means a mid-year move to her dad’s house in Oregon, which would be fine except for one thing: her mean-girl step-sister Olivia. Things between the two are tense and soon explode, prompting and impromptu visit from Cat’s great aunt Abyssinia, who just a little, shall we say, strange. After this visit Cat wakes up in the morning to a terrible surprise: every time she talks, a toad falls from her mouth! Conversely, whenever Olivia speaks, flowers and diamonds fall from hers. The family tries to keep things under wraps while they deal with these startling developments, but word soon gets out and suddenly it seems as if the entire world is camped on their front lawn. Everyone wants a piece of “Diamond Girl”, including the U.S. Government. In order to save Olivia from being dissected in Area 51, and their little brother from a crazed kidnapper, Cat and her step-sister run away in a mad dash to track down Great Aunt Abyssinia and get her to fix the girls’ problems.

In the original tale, “Diamonds and Toads”, a sorceress grants the “blessing” of flowers and diamonds to the kinder of two sisters and curses the crueler of the two with snakes and toads. For Ms. Frederick, poor, addled Great Aunt Abyssinia gets things a little muddled when our heroine ends up with the toads and Olivia the diamonds. But this doesn’t mean that the intended lesson doesn’t get across its audience. The girls have to learn to work together to save both their hides and their little brother. Yes, the story goes off the rails a little bit in the last act, with a magical deus ex machina in the form of Abyssinia’s RV, but never does Frederick lose control of the delight in her story. Using the old legend as a base for her “coming to terms with family” story, Frederick has woven a charming tale about familial affection, loyalty, magic, and yes, toads.

Once Upon a Toad by Heather Vogel Frederick
2012, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Library copy

*From the preface to Laurens Van Der Post’s A Story Like the Wind.

No comments:

Post a Comment