the Little Red Reviewer

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

Posted on: August 31, 2017

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

Available Nov 17th 2017

Where I got it: Received advanced reading copy from the publisher (Thanks Tachyon!)

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Are kids still reading fairy tales and older stories? I wonder.  What need do the ten year olds of today have for Alice in Wonderland when they can play video games instead?  What use is a Hans Christian Andersen story book when you can watch a Disney movie instead?  I think a lot of younger readers who get their hands on Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus  will find themselves yearning to learn more about Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, The Once and Future King, Charles Perrault, J.M. Barrie, Edgar Allan Poe, and more. My favorite kind of fiction is the kind that makes me want to read non-fiction.

 

The Emerald Circus showcases Yolen’s  range of talents in re-imagining classic stories and fairy tales,  and how being exposed to classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Arthurian legends, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe shaped the lifelong joy she finds in storytelling through prose and poetry.  If you are a fan of poetry, the story notes and poems section at the end will be your favorite area, as the vast majority of the poems showcased are new to this volume.  Long time fans of Yolen’s work will see many familiar friends in the Table of Contents, as a number of these stories were previously published in other anthologies over the years.   The gem of the table of contents most certainly is “Sister Emily’s Lightship”,  which means a whole new generation of readers will get to enjoy this famous award winning short story.

 

The collection opens and closes with the very strong Hans Christian Andersen origin story “Andersen’s Witch”, and the Nebula award winning short story “Sister Emily’s Lightship”.  “Andersen’s Witch” is an excellent set up for the rest of the collection, as the story takes place when Hans is but a child – poverty stricken, lonely, and unsure of his future.  He makes a deal that affects the rest of his life,  and he doesn’t realize the price of that deal until he lies on his deathbed.   I loved how ambiguous this story is – did these things really happen? Did Hans imagine them? Does it matter?  This beautifully told story gave me wonderful flashbacks of being a kid and reading The Snow Queen out of a massive (or it seemed massive at the time!) Andersen fairy tales book I had as a kid. The illustrations in that book got my attention, and the stories kept me coming back to it.

 

“Sister Emily’s Lightship” is the big draw for this collection, and although it appears last in the table of contents I’m sure most people will read it first.  Described by Yolen as “Emily Dickinson meets a Martian”, the story is told in a very different style than the other entries in this collection. Could an interaction with an alien have triggered Emily’s withdrawal from society?  What need would she have of salons and social calling, when she’s seen what the Earth looks like from space? How could local society possibly compete with her inner life that is so full of fireworks and supernovae?   These two stories make excellent bookends, as they have an odd mirroring of each other – the main character’s experience with something alien helps them to create unparalleled works of literature, but at the same time pushes them both towards a life of perceived  loneliness and reclusiveness.

 

And in between those two short stories any reader will find plenty more to enjoy:

A thematic outlier, “A Knot of Toads”, was one of my favorites. A woman returns home for her father’s funeral, to learn that she’s changed more than she realizes and completely lost touch with her home town. Her father was a locally famous scholar, but in his later years he discovered forbidden knowledge which he documented in his journals. She reads his journals and wonders what she might have unleashed. An odd sort-of ghost story filled with misty moors and superstition, this was just a darn enjoyable story to read.

 

Fans of Arthurian mythos and the origins of urban myths will get a kick out of “The Quiet Monk”, another one of my favorites. Shortly before the year 1200, a monk arrives at a monastery with a secret and an ulterior motive.  Taking a youth into his confidence, the quiet monk is on the search for his own private holy grail. This quiet monk, he is a man who can not possibly exist, and he crosses England searching for the  hidden grave of a woman centuries dead. What’s really fun about this story is that it’s based on an ancient publicity stunt.

 

“The Bird” was written for this collection, and this very short story will hit you like a hammer.  A conversation between Edgar and Virginia, in which they seem to speak of trivial things while a pet bird frustrates Edgar and befriends Virginia.  It’s the kind of conversation that while you’re having it, it doesn’t feel like much. But a day, a week, a year later, you realize it is a conversation you will never be able to forget. These short and sharply emotional short stories are the ones that tend to stick with me the longest.

 

“Lost Girls” is a story in this collection that will always get a lot of attention and discussion. In this version of Peter Pan, girls who would rather end up anywhere but where they are can wake up in Neverland. Regardless of their first name, a narcissistic and trapped-in-his-own-mythos Peter calls them all “Wendy”, and while Peter and the lost boys play at war, the Wendys are left home to cook and clean. The newest Wendy is actually named Darla. A very modern girl, Darla easily convinces the other Wendys to go on strike, because equality.  The girls who ended up in Neverland are from different time periods, all throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Darla is the only “modern” girl, and none of the other girls have ever heard of Feminism, women having the right to vote, or equal pay for equal work.  Darla expects them all of have the same world view as she does, and she’s not sure what to do when they don’t.  My favorite part of this story is when we meet Captain Hook, who was not at all what I expected, and possibly my favorite version of Hook.

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Other stories that I enjoyed included “The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown” which explores the relationship between Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli,  and “Wonder Land”, which is fascinating and unforgettable take on Little Red Riding Hood.   As enjoyable as the stories are, my favorite part of this collection was the Story Notes and Poems section at the end. I admit, much of the poetry was lost on me, but always enjoy it when authors give some background about where the story idea came from. As many of these were previously published in other collections or anthologies, Yolen even shares some funny stories about when editors asked for different types of stories and how even she is not immune to the dreaded missed deadline.

 

The Emerald Circus is a great starting point for readers new to Yolen’s work, and it has the potential be a treasured friend for those of you who have been reading Yolen for decades.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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