A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Gail Carson Levine's Fairest is a fairy tale from the author of Ella Enchanted. The heroine, Aza, is refreshingly less attractive than your average protagonist and suffers from quite a bit of self-doubt because of it. Aza is tricked and imprisoned in a dungeon where she's tied up with a gag in her mouth. When she escapes, there's the threat of being killed by a guard or eaten by an ogre. Innocent words of love exchanged, and there's some hand-holding and kissing.
What's the story?
Left as a baby, Aza is found by a loving innkeeper and wife who raise her as their own. She grows up to be large and not pretty, causing her shame and low self-esteem. But, she is kind and has a gift for song, making curious guests drawn to her, including a wise gnome and a duchess. She is invited to the castle as the handmaid for the king's wedding to a mysterious young woman from another land. This new queen befriends Aza and learns of Aza's gift of song and the ability to "illuse": to mimic any voice and throw it so it appears that someone else is singing. The queen threatens to harm Aza's family unless Aza illuses a voice for her at the kingdom Sings. The prince also is intrigued by Aza, and much to Aza's pleasant surprise they develop a friendship. Aza learns that the queen has been given beauty through a magical mirror from the Fairy Lucinda, the same one in the book Ella Enchanted. A creature lives in the mirror, giving the queen poor advice on running the kingdom while the king is ill. Aza's illusing is soon revealed but not before she goes to the mirror and asks for beauty. With physical beauty, the problems begin for Aza, including imprisonment and a run-in with a poison apple.
Is it any good?
Author Gail Carson Levine has mastered the art of twisting fantasy and creating interesting characters that are likable and somehow relatable to today's kids. Aza is smart, competent, and gifted in song, a highly honored and valuable means of communication in this society. She also can illuse. This skill becomes the tool for the newly married, beautiful young queen to win the hearts of the kingdom.
And so follows a story with adventure, love, and fantasy with a thread common to the tale Sleeping Beauty and a lesson about recognizing what true beauty is.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Aza is a good and kind person worth rooting for. Is it because she grows up in a house of love and respect?
How is Fairest different form other princess stories? Why do you think princess stories remain popular in modern culture?
Can you relate to Aza's feelings about herself and how others judge her? How did it feel as a reader to hear Aza's description of herself as a "blemish" or others calling her an "ogre"? Does this make you feel differently about first impressions and judging others?
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