Spinners, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

Every time I go to my local public library, I try to take out at least one YA book, whether I need it or not (to improve the YA stats, and to make room on the shelves. I'm not allowed to donate any more YA books to the library, it's so full, and that hurts). Last night I was looking for a fairy tale retelling, to share for Once Upon a Time Week, and I came home with Spinners, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen (1999, Penguin, YA, 197 pages in paperback)-- a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

I love (with exceptions) fairy tale retellings. I love the twisty paths the authors take as the stories behind The Story unfold, making the unbelievable and often inconsistent parts of the original into a coherent narrative in which motivations make sense. And in the best sort of fairy tale retelling, the larger world of the new story will be filled with a magic of its own--with new enchantments built on the old.

For the first half of this book, I was afraid that Spinners wasn't this type of book. For one thing, it has, in my mind, three handicaps--it's told in the third person present, and it takes place over a period of 15 years, and it has two points of view. So for the first half of the book, I felt detached from the characters, seeing them as if from great distance. I watched as a young tailor made a terrible, morally reprehensible choice in a desperate effort to win the girl he loved by spinning straw into gold, a choice that led to his becoming a crippled outcast. I wasn't sure I cared. I watched as his daughter, believing the miller to be her father, lived a difficult life in his drunken shadow. My worry that I would not find the book reviewable grew.

But then I reached the halfway point, and the daughter, Saskia, began to spin, and her spinning became more and more elaborately narrated and fantastically beautiful. And by the time the miller made his drunken boast to the king, and Saskia found herself shut up in the first room full of straw, facing death unless she could spin it into gold, I was hooked.

Napoli and Tchen had hit their stride, and the motivations of the characters--crippled spinner, the beautiful and talented girl, and the greedy (yet not altogether loathsome) king were falling into place, making the story captivating enough so that the last seventy five pages flew by in tense and engaged reading, even though I knew the ending. Because, as is the case with all good fairy tale retellings, it's not the ending that matters, but how you get there....(or something like that).

This marks another addition to my compendium of Textile Fantasies. Reviewed to date are:

Avielle of Rhia
, by Dia Calhoun
The Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones
Tom Ass, by Ann Laurence
Brightly Woven, by Alexandra Bracken
Silksinger, by Laini Taylor


  1. I sometimes have issues with the slow plot progression in some of this author's books, but I liked this one pretty well - for some reason, this is a fairytale that bears multiple retellings with a fair amount of flexibility. Must be the double-knit textiles...

  2. Ah, Donna Jo Napoli. I went on a bit of a tear with her books about four or five years ago, and I remember this one being very good. I also really liked Siren and Zel. She does very interesting things with fairy tales. Nice review!

  3. I haven't read very much of her at all--and, although I liked this one in the end, I'm not sure she is exactly my cup of tea. But I'll look out for the two you mention, Celi.a! Thanks.

    I think, Tanita, that one reason this is a good one for retelling is the mystery of just why Rumpelstiltskin wanted the baby. Anytime you throw a baby into the mix, you get Emotional Resonance. And the king bit is so twisted...

    I am tempted to quickly re-read Curse Dark as Gold (Elizabeth Bunce's take on the story, for those who might not have read it), and finally review it tomorrow, and see how it compares.

  4. I was excited until I saw it took you so long to get into the plot. But maybe I'll try it.

    I just started Brightly Woven. I like it.
    Oh, and I love the new blog design, especially the top.

  5. Thanks, Natalie!

    And since this was a relativly short book, halfway through, when it started to take off for me, was only about 75 pages--so worth trying!

  6. I just finished reading Brightly Woven and I remembered that you review textile fantasy books. I may need to check out the others in your list soon. I've read some of Napoli's fairy tale retellings but I haven't gotten around to this one.

  7. Napoli always has such interesting takes on fairy tales. I've been meaning to read this one forever. Thanks for the heads up about the slow start!

  8. I am kind of hit or miss with Napoli's retellings. The problem is, I can't remember if this one was a hit or miss for me... Well, I do like that she's taken on so many fairy tales though!


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