Lessons In Small Print: Discovering Serendipity
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
Imagine a Rashomon-meets-Rorschach-test of a book. We just treated ourselves to one that encourages as many interpretations of it as there are readers, and best for the kids: all are reassuringly acceptable.
A clever inversion of narratives flows through Penny Blubaugh’s debut novel, Serendipity Market. Fairy tale retellings are hardly what you’d expect early-teens to warm to – especially when some of these stories for kids are uneven, jumpy and not quite fleshed out. And yet, who won’t succumb to the magic of magic. The author explains: “I really do believe we live in a place where something strange, odd, scary or wonderful may be waiting just around the next corner. Turn west when the wind’s blowing in the right direction and who knows what you might find?”
That is why Blubaugh stages what seems like a Story Slam. Fairytale characters share an entirely different first-person spin on stories as eternal as Cinderella, for instance – recreated here from the charmingly disconcerting viewpoint of the lizard footman who’s hopelessly in love with Cindergirl.
Jack and the Beanstalk, The Princess and the Pea, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Red Riding Hood… in the central framing of the book, eleven cult characters are summoned from far corners of the earth to a tent in Serendipity Market for a shared night of open-ended storytelling by Mama Inez. She is certain that only her guests’ powers of expression can restore balance in a world gone uncontrollably off-kilter.
Apart from discovering the beautiful meaning of serendipity, our young book clubbers passed mixed verdicts on Blubaugh’s experiment.
“Such a good premise, but the book should have been better for it to work.”
This cropped up as a common complaint: that these hodgepodge tales-with-a-twist could be more deftly told. While a sting does mark a few vignettes, there’s no getting away from the fact that the patchy plots droop limply at times. Responses ranged from misgivings – “I was bored at the beginning,” and “The stories sound the same, though they try hard not to,”– to the admiring – “It’s great to think up innovative ways to keep the universe sane,” and, “What a gift Mama Inez has to enter people’s lives mysteriously.”
“There should be an equal number of those who believe in magic and those who don’t.”
Just look around and you will find the world is filled with magic? Not really, was the chorused response. Exciting as it was to know that when Toby the dog breathes on Mama Inez’s bird-shaped invitations, he gives them the power to fly and kickstarts the journeys to Serendipity Market, the kids agreed that magic and mesmerism work for those who see and value it. “It’s wasted on the non-believers,” said one sceptical girl with feeling.
“Magic and change can come about when you least expect it.”
Serendipity is a notion at which hardened adults may well scoff, but children more freely embrace it. Faith results in receptivity, the kids felt, identifying the words chance, coincidence, possibilities, potential, miracles and dreams as related to serendipity. They pointed out how each guest invited by Mama Inez provides a talisman and a trip-up to a traditional tale, with which they can set the world back to its rightful state. Despite Mama Inez’s story remaining underwritten, the kids found the detailed performance pieces bring connections and a strong sense of community among ‘tellers’ and ‘listeners.’
“Without any authority we would have anarchy.”
Gentle limits spell security. In “Lost,” the book’s variant of The Elves and the Shoemaker, a passage reads: “We were on our own for the first time. It was an adventure. No one to report to. No explanations for any behaviour, no matter how peculiar. No schedules. Bedtime whenever we chose.” That all sounds very appealing, so it’s interesting to see children being picky about liberties. Barring the bedtime-as-we-please bit, they felt on safer ground “with at least one person to report to and a few days of peculiar behaviour”!
“I’m a happy person, but I don’t like happy stories.”
When we asked the kids to take a shot at writing a fairy tale of their own, that’s what one boy declared, his personally spun story steeped in dark forebodings and dire consequences. Like him, many others rode high on shock value. They used stock characters like Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Pinocchio all right, though many wove disturbing yarns around these, replete with dysfunctional stalkers, bullies, thieves and murderers. Each child sat on the floor to narrate the story, encircled by the others, for a more authentic taste of oral storytelling, the method by which fairy tales developed.
Finally it is the writer’s passion for the art of oral history that comes through. “I write books for teens – urban fantasy and sometimes sort of out-there, not quite one thing, not quite another,” Blubaugh said once in an interview. “Reading can change you in ways you’ve never imagined. Wherever you go, there you are. May you read, wander and come across all things wonderful.”
Head to Serendipity Market. Let the enchantment begin.