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Red is the story of Red Riding Hood, but not as you remember her. This Red’s granny is a magic expert, the Witch of the Woods, and is Red’s best friend. Instead of a wolf, Granny’s only enemy is aging and disease. Red teams up with a wild wolf with whom she shares a special bond, and she also runs across Goldie. Yes, that Goldie, with golden locks who loves porridge and stealing things from bears. Together, they seek the magic that will make her Granny immortal, but magic never works in quite the way you want it to, and the creatures Red meets along the way are living proof of the unintended consequences of using magic selfishly.
The fantasy world that Shurtliff has woven in this and her previous two books, Rump and Jack, is stunning and richly detailed. There are enough twists on the fairy tales she references to make them feel fresh, while still remaining recognizable. Red encounters Beauty and the Beast, dwarves (who are, by now, tired of hearing about Snow White), helpful tree nymphs, terrifying water sprites, and an elderly huntsman – characters you might recognize from other tales, but portrayed in different ways. The world they inhabit has definite rules that makes it feel more fully fleshed out: what magic can and cannot do, the power of names, and animal affiliations – all explained and used as plot points.
While the fantasy world is fun to get lost in, the story is really about Red, a girl who must mature and face her one big fear: magic. Granny tried to teach Red how to do magic, but when Red caused an accident that severely injured Granny, she vowed never to attempt it again. Now, Granny is ill and magic may be the only thing that can save her. Red’s struggle with her fears will make her relatable to kids, and the way she uses her intelligence to overcome obstacles is admirable.
Although Red does seem prickly at times, especially upon first meeting Goldie and having no patience for her flightiness, she is a likable character. She stumbles sometimes and makes bad decisions that are frustrating to read, but as it is one of these bad decisions that kicks off the entire plot, it is a flaw that must be forgiven. Goldie is a wonderful supporting character and foil to Red, and in fact, this reader would love it if Shurtliff’s next book was Goldie-centric! Her cluelessness about the world was irritating at times, but she was so endearing it was hard to be annoyed at her for long. The other minor characters – the juvenile dwarf Borlen, Red’s surprisingly funny wolf friend, the Beast, the tragic Well Witch – were characterized well, each having their own distinct voices.
It’s refreshing for a book for readers of this age, especially one about fairy tales, to not include romantic entanglements for its main female characters. They have other things more important than boys to worry about, like mastering skills, overcoming fears, and learning that people are not always what they seem – especially magical creatures. This last one might be the most important of all: appearances can be deceiving, and people who may outwardly seem to be monstrous may be kind and gentle, while people who seem good-natured and harmless might turn out to be the real monsters, and it’s up to your intuition to sort them out. Unfortunately, in our modern world as well as in Red’s fantasy world, this is something that our young girls and boys need to be able to do. Red and Goldie learn all of this in an entertaining, original, and fast-paced tale, serving up true life lessons wrapped in a familiar red-cloaked visage.
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