Book: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Age Range: 8-12
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a retelling of the Snow Queen by Karen Foxlee. I don't know the original story, so I can't comment on faithfulness to that tale. But Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy works well as an old-fashioned fantasy novel for middle grade readers.
Ophelia is a glasses-wearing 11-year-old girl who believes in facts, not fantasy. She is mourning the recent death of her mother, who was a novelist specializing in horror stories. Ophelia also laments that change that her mother's death has wrought in her older sister, Alice. As the story begins, Ophelia and Alice's father has dragged them to a mysterious snow-covered city, where the dad, a sword expert, is working on a sword exhibition. The exhibition is in an enormous, rambling museum full of odd artifacts. Poking around one day, Ophelia is amazed to discover a boy in old-fashioned clothes who is locked in a room. Even though she on principal doesn't really believe in this boy, Ophelia is unable to resist his request for help.
Ophelia reminds me a bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, a lonely person with smudgy glasses mourning a missing parent, confronted with impossible occurrences. But of course Ophelia is her own quirky person. Like this:
"Everything in the world can be classified scientifically. For instance, I am from the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Home sapiens. I only eat class Pisces and only if they're called sardines. I don't believe in unicorns or dragons or anything magical, really." (Page 16, to the Boy)
"Of course she couldn't save the world. She was only eleven years old and rather small for her age, and also she had knock-knees. Dr. Singh told her mother she would probably grow out of them, especially if she wore medical shoes, but that wasn't the point. She had very bad asthma as well, made worse by cold weather and running and bad scares." (Page 17)
I did find Ophelia a bit slow to catch on to a couple of major plot points, and I think that young readers will, too. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ophelia plods along trying to do the right thing, and the reader gets to feel clever. Also, having figured things out ahead of time lends a tension to the book, as the reader worries about Alice's situation before Ophelia even realizes that there is a problem.
The boy's story is told in the form of tales that he tells to Ophelia. It's more high fantasy (wizards, a village, great owls, etc.), but blends well with Ophelia's slightly more real-world story. Here's a snippet:
"And you might think a name is just a name, nothing but a word, but that is not the case. Your name is tacked to you. Where it has joined you, it has seeped into your skin and into your essence and into your soul. So when they plucked my name from me with their spell, it was as heavy as a rock in their hands but as invisible as the wind, and it wasn't just the memory of my name, but me myself. A tiny part of me that they took and stored away." (Page 21)
Lovely prose, I think! The entire book has an otherworldly, dreamlike feeling. The primary setting, the museum, is full of intriguing and sometimes creepy things (including ghosts). There's a literal clock ticking away the time in which the world can be saved. All set against a sub-text of Ophelia and her family coming to terms with the loss of Ophelia's mother.
It's a powerful book all around. And it has a great title and an appealing cover. I picked it up knowing very little about it, but certain that Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy had to be interesting. I was correct. Recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy fantasy, and anyone else who likes fairy tale retellings. Knowledge of the Snow Queen story is not necessary to appreciate the book.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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