Once Upon a Toad, by Heather Vogel Frederick

I have always appreciated the story of the two sisters who are rewarded/punished for their behavior with flower and jewels, or reptiles and amphibians, coming from their mouths when they speak.  It was a very unambiguous story--the good child is rewarded, the bad child punished.  End of story.  Clearly spraying those around you with flowers and jewels is better than drooling toads.

Or maybe not. 

Once Upon a Toad, by Heather Vogel Frederick is a retelling of this fairytale, set very much in the present day, but with a magic that makes no concession to modernity!  It's the story of two girls--stepsisters--who loathe each other.  One of whom, Cat, is blessed (?) with a fairy godmother, her Great Aunt Abyssinia, who leaps in to set things right (?).  Suddenly Cat finds herself speaking toads, and her mean girl stepsister, Olivia, speaks in diamonds and flowers (the species of flower changing depending on her mood, which I thought was a nice touch).

Of course, this being the 21st century, a secret branch of the government becomes keenly interested when Olivia's gift becomes public knowledge (Cat manages to maintain a charade of laryngitis).  And diamonds, being diamonds, attract the interest of would-be profiteers....When Cat and Olivia's mutual little brother is kidnapped by these bad guys, the two girls head off to find Great Aunt Abyssinia, desperate to get him back, and to have their "gifts" rescinded.

It's an entertaining retelling, nicely fractured and reassembled into a coherent adventure.   There are Issues dealt with--coming to terms with family relationships that are forced on you, learning to get along with, and even appreciate,  people very different from yourself --but though these issues are very clearly present, even underlined, they don't take over the story (much).   This is a fantasy that might well appeal to  middle school girls who would generally prefer realism, and who think they don't like magic.  And for those who do like magic, the contemporary setting makes a nice change.  Not necessarily a deep or powerfully moving change (it's not subtle or profound enough for that), but fun nonetheless.


  1. I think this is one of my favorite fairy tales to read retelling's of. Gail Carson Levine did a similar one, where the flowers and gems ended up being a curse and reptiles and amphibians a blessing. There was also another story I read where the girl "blessed" with diamonds and flowers coughs up blood every time too because of the thorns and sharp edges. I just love that while the original author may have been wanting to tell a simple cautionary tale, the end result is much more complicated. In any case, this is definitely one I've been wanting to read. Great review, Charlotte!

  2. Loved the author's book about Betsy-Tacy; must add this to my list.


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