A fairytale about a young boy who runs away from home to live with a (very surprised) troll, a princess cursed with being able to read people's thoughts, several bouncy dogs, and an evil queen with a pet ferret. Jean Ferris' middle school novel Once Upon a Marigold: Part Comedy, Part Love Story, Part Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink really ought to be the sort of book I love. Unfortunately, somewhere between the concept and the writing, the author lost me.
I suppose I was expecting more from Once Upon a Marigold because I've read such great things about Ferris' Love Among the Walnuts, Or How I Saved My Family from Being Poisoned (recommended by ALA and nominated for a National Book Award).
But back to Once Upon a Marigold... Ferris is half poking fun at fairytales and half over-earnest. On the one hand, there are tongue-in-cheek subplots, such as Edric's attempt to crack the Tooth Fairy's monopoly of the tooth market. And Edric's mangled metaphors ("He'd buttered his bread, and now he had to lie in it") never fail to trigger smiles.
On the other hand, despite Ferris' obvious writing skills, her prose often needs tightening. There are too many scenes where characters tell and then retell each other information the reader already knows and too many characters' responses that are based on the needs of the plot rather than believable human reactions. I also wish more had been made of Marigold's curse--this interesting idea was merely incidental to the plot. The protagonists, Christian and Marigold, are highly likable, but sound so cheesy at times that I have to wince. I expect love and marriage to be somewhat simplified in books for middle-schoolers. But I know this can be presented better:
Compare Ferris' passage above to another confession of love in another popular middle school fantasy, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine:
"If my Marigold vouches for you, that's good enough for me. But you'll have to stay here just a little longer."
"No, Papa," Marigold insisted, holding on to the bars of Christian's cell. "They have to get out now."
Christian reached through the bars to run his fingers along the smooth curve of her cheek. "It's all right. I'll be waiting for you. Don't forget me."
"Never," she said.
Oh my, thought Ed and Swithbert simultaneously.
Still a little silly, yes, but a more believable, love-induced silly.
Impatience is not usually my weakness. But your letters torment me. They make me long to saddle my horse and ride to Frell, where I would make you explain yourself. They are playful, interesting, thoughtful, and (occasionally) serious. I'm overjoyed to recieve them, yet they bring misery[...].
You like me. You wouldn't waste time or paper on a being you didn't like. But I think I've loved you since we met at your mother's funeral. I want to be with you forever and beyond, but you write that you are too young to marry or too old to marry or too short or too hungry--until I crumple your letters up in despair, only to smooth them out again for a twelfth reading, hunting for hidden meanings.
Most of the reviews online were glowing, and most were by middle-schoolers, whose judgements of this book matter a great deal more than mine. While overwhelmingly positive, several reviews complained about Once Upon a Marigold's slapdash ending. Beyond the surprise of sudden conclusions to previously stretched-out senarios, what startled me was Ferris' cliffhanger ending. The unsatisfying last lines are obviously a lead-in to Ferris' sequel Twice Upon a Marigold, but while I still plan to look for Ferris' Love Among the Walnuts, I think I'll skip Once Upon a Marigold, Part Deux.
Note: Book cover image from Norwalk Middle School Library.