I remember when Scholastic book orders and yearly book fairs would come to my elementary school. They were among of the highlights of my youth. I didn’t get to splurge on a lot of things as a kid but books, somehow, were the exception. It was through Scholastic that I discovered my favourite novelists, such as J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, and Roald Dahl. But one of my absolute favourite, lesser-known children’s authors was Gail Carson Levine.
Levine’s stories are usually clever re-workings of popular fairytales—like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty—where the princesses are no longer hapless damsels-in-distress but are worthy young heroines with their own agency, rich inner lives, and emotional complexity. Levine is best known for her hit, Newbery-winning book Ella Enchanted (which was adapted into a rather terrible movie starring the lovely Anne Hathaway in 2004), where a headstrong girl named Ella is cursed by a fairy with obedience. Its fantastical elements and inventive situations are well worth a read. Levine has also written a few non-fairytale inspired books, including Dave at Night, which is based off her father’s childhood in a Hebrew orphanage, and The Wish.
My very favourite book by Levine, however, is the The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It is a beautiful tale of loving sisters Addie and Meryl who have drastically different looks and personalities but whose love is great enough to bring magical healing and courage to a kingdom plagued with sickness and mythic monsters. The unusual descriptions of characters—from sorcerers with white eyelashes to dragons with crystalline eyes and chiming laughter—and poetic passages of in-story historical texts are deeply memorable. I remember the pang of heartbreak when reaching the end of the book as the wonderful world-building and bittersweet ending left me with a strong sense of yearning to enter the pages.
Excitingly, Levine recently published a prequel to Two Princesses called The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. It chronicles the rebellion of the enslaved Bamarre people led by a warrior girl who had been raised in the family of one of the conquering Lakti as one of their own. Part the story of Moses and part Rapunzel, Lost Kingdom is also about transcending cultural and racial differences that is told in a way to appeal to young readers (which I sadly am no longer one).
As Levine’s stories echo nostalgically in my memory, I highly recommend her books to young readers, especially female ones. Her breathtaking descriptions and subversion of fairytale classics prove to be surprisingly resonant.