My pick this week: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. This book was originally published as part of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Fairy Tales series – a project meant to unite some of the biggest names in fantasy and have them re-write the classic fairy tales for adults. The thought being that adults were the original audience for fairy tales, anyway, and a dark or different take on the traditional stories would provide something new for the genre. That was YEARS ago, and now (or maybe yesterday) it’s the next big thing to re-write classic fairy tales. The books in the series included Patricia C. Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red (just re-released as a YA book, ironically enough) and Charles de Lint’s Jack of Kinrowan, among others. I started with those two and then decided to read Yolen’s take on the fable of the Sleeping Beauty.
I’ve been a fan of Yolen for a long time – she’s an immensely talented and prolific writer in the YA genre, and her writing (and that of a couple of other authors) helped introduce me to the world of fantasy. Plus I trust the editing of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Then throw in a fairy tale re-telling that mixes Sleeping Beauty (favorite!) and the Holocaust. WHAT?!, you say? Yes, I know…it sounds completely improbable and maybe un-doable. Only an author of Yolen’s caliber could pull it off. Evidence: it’s on the ALA’s 100 Best Books for Young Adults list, and I’ve seen it paired in lesson plans with Elie Wiesel’s Night.
When I first read Briar Rose I felt unsettled, anxious and out of my comfort zone. The book is powerful, hard-to-read (in the way that reading about true evil is difficult, not that it’s tough to understand), and disturbing. The story touched me and made me think about prejudice, intolerance, the nature of conviction, and the violence hidden in the human soul. It’s a good book; Yolen deftly handles a terrifying topic and gives the reader a chance to experience a time and a story that are often beyond comprehension.
Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.