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  • Writer's picturePicture Book Snob

This feminist fairy tale rocks!

Rapunzel to the Rescue by Lucy Rowland and Katy Halford

"You might think this story is one that you know. Rapunzel - the girl in the tower?

But no!"

Lucy Rowland is becoming one of our favourite authors and we love this feminist retelling of a familiar fairy tale. Rapunzel is no longer confined to a tower - she's a courageous guitar-playing heroine who rescues a captive prince. Instead of a long braid of her prisoner's hair, the witch climbs up the prince's abundant beard. Rather than becoming a bride at the story's conclusion, Rapunzel forms a band. She allows the prince to join as its drummer (but only after he has improved his skills and practised for "the whole of the summer"). It's fantastic to see a more diverse Rapunzel, especially as only 5% of children’s books had Black, Asian or minority ethnic main protagonists in 2019. Although usually portrayed as a damsel in distress with little or no agency, the Rapunzel of this story is a brilliant and brave, empowered character.

Kind and compassionate, we see Rapunzel helping her family as well as the prince. She works hard (busking) to care for her mother instead of for any material wealth. Unlike many heroes of traditional fairy tales, Rapunzel is not motivated by personal gain. She refuses the gold she is offered by the King and Queen for returning their son, and doesn't seek matrimony as a reward either.

Rapunzel to the Rescue is inventive, playful and lively and rhymes the whole way through. The gorgeous and colourful illustrations evoke a delightfully magical realm. The book flips on its side twice when showing the tower which makes the tale more immersive. I love the amusing details in the images that enrich the story, and the clothes that everyone wears.

The characters are all dressed to reflect their status and personality. The royalty is in elaborate costumes, Rapunzel and her mother are more casual. Rapunzel wears a modern hoody and jeans but her long laced boots have a storybook quality. The witch's dark robes and skull belt suggest her sinister nature, and she wears boots that are similar to Rapunzel's.

The pop-culture references are brilliant. There's a poster in the tower that reads, "Keep calm and be a prince." while another, featuring bears, plays homage to the Beatles' Abbey Road album. A different poster celebrates Wolfie Wonders who, with his large dark glasses, bears a resemblance to Stevie Wonder.

Charming bluebirds accompany the prince and appear throughout the book, sometimes even peeking out from his beard. They remind me of the wildlife that tends to follow Disney princesses around. We see them high-five one another at the story's conclusion, satisfied by the happy ending. The bluebirds decorate the endpapers too. One can be seen on the reverse of the endpapers at the back of the book enjoying the restorative powers of the witch's magic hair potion. There are framed photos of the birds in the prince's tower, including one of them surrounding the prince. On the floor we see a discarded newspaper, hilariously called "The Hairy Mail." The prince has a toy dragon and a dragon mobile too.

An adorable little mouse inserts himself into the action on almost every page. We see him scaling a blade of grass while Rapunzel contemplates climbing up the beard. In other scenes, he tucks himself into the prince's bed and hides from a tyrannical, royal cat.

The mouse even joins Puss in Boots and Wolfie Wonders on stage with Rapunzel and the prince as the Scary Hair Band performs in the final scene. We had lots of fun spotting other fairy tale characters in the audience. The frog prince, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, the three little pigs and the three bears are all enjoying the show.

Author Lucy Rowland is a speech and language therapist with years of experience of working with children. Lucy has written lots of fantastic stories that connect with young people. We also have Wanda's Words got Stuck, Sammy Claws and Little Red Reading Hood and love them. The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Book is releasing in January and we can't wait!

Artist Katy Halford is a former art teacher who decided to become a full-time illustrator in 2017. Since then, she has worked on a variety of children's titles from non-fiction to chapter and picture books. Katy's advice to up-and-coming artists is to: "Be yourself with a vengeance!" This seems fitting in the context of this story and its non-conformist characters.

Several scenes depicting Rapunzel are framed by leaves and vines. Rapunzel's mother is sick, and a book called "Gardening Facts" lies at her bedside. These appear to be a nod to the original story in which Rapunzel's poorly mother craves greens from a witch's garden. The Grimm brothers adapted Rapunzel from a French fairy tale called Persinette which was written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force in 1698.

At the time, it was not uncommon for women to be exiled or hidden on account of being illegitimate, a secret mistress, or having offended someone powerful. When de La Force wrote Persinette, it was from inside the walls of a convent. She had been banished to a Benedictine abbey by Louis XIV because of scandalous rumours circulating about her.

When I wrote about a multicultural retelling of Cinderella by Chloe Perkins and Sandra Equihua, I learned about the conteuses. This was a group of 17th century French female writers who created the archetypes of classic fairy tale heroines and de La Force was one of them. Melissa Ashley wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian all about the conteuses, which states that the first fairy tales were "feminist critiques of patriarchy."

This clever, contemporary Rapunzel rocks the stereotypes typically present in fairy tales, yet its subversion of these stories carries on the tradition of the conteuses. My children enjoy Rapunzel to the Rescue without being aware of all the nuances and subtle jokes, but grown-up readers will appreciate them. A lively, entertaining, modern and memorable take on a classic, destined to be as enduring as its inspiration.

PS. If you enjoy feminist fairy tales, see also reviews of Don't Mess with a Princess by Rachel Valentine and Rebecca Bagley, and The Princess and the Shoe by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton. If you're interested in reading more about the conteuses, Melissa Ashley has written a novel based on their lives called The Bee and the Orange Tree.

Title: Rapunzel to the Rescue

Author: Lucy Rowland

Illustrator: Katy Halford

Publisher: Scholastic

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

ISBN: 9781407191263

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