Goodreads: Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Red is not afraid of the big bad wolf. She’s not afraid of anything . . . except magic.
But when Red’s granny falls ill, it seems that only magic can save her, and fearless Red is forced to confront her one weakness.
With the help of a blond, porridge-sampling nuisance called Goldie, Red goes on a quest to cure Granny. Her journey takes her through dwarves’ caverns to a haunted well and a beast’s castle. All the while, Red and Goldie are followed by a wolf and a huntsman—two mortal enemies who seek the girls’ help to defeat each other. And one of them just might have the magical solution Red is looking for. . . .
As a true fan of middle grade fantasy and fairy tale retellings, I was so excited for this book. I particularly enjoy new takes on “Little Red Riding Hood,” as there’s so much complexity to be explored in the characters of the wolf and the huntsman. Unfortunately, I was let down by this particular retelling. The plot is spazzy and episodic, Red is a grump, and the whole thing is so moralizing the allure of the adventure fades away.
The story opens with some promising middle grade charm, as Shurtliff sets up the backstory: Red has had bad experience with her magic and is afraid to use it, but otherwise she loves exploring the magical forest where her grandmother lives. Quirk quickly gives way to chaos, however, as Shurtliff introduces one magical species after another, all with their own wild histories and crazy rules. Dwarves, water sprites, magic animals, witches, and more get a turn all in quick succession. Some readers might find it fun; I found it all random and overwhelming.
Plot-wise, Red needs to go on an adventure to help her ailing (dying) grandmother. However, the tale morphs into a didactic text on accepting death as Red meets various characters who either have had their own quests for immortality go wrong or otherwise give sage advice and solemn monologues about how everything has its time and everyone must die. I don’t mind a lesson or two in middle grade (though I find them unnecessary), but I truly began to think this was a tale I should save in case I ever encounter a child who needed a book to guide them on how to accept the imminent death of a loved one. The story could hardly have hit me harder over the head with its moral.
Even a secondary lesson is thrown in, as grouchy Red must learn to control her temper and her selfishness and be kind to others. Perhaps readers who have already met Red in Rump (I haven’t read it), will be interested to see her character fully fleshed out. Since I had no expectations, I was surprised to find an initially grumpy child who wasn’t particularly fun to hang around with, even as a fictional character. Watching her become more polite as she progressed in her journey was fun, but I could have done without the preachy speeches on kindness.
Overall, this book simply isn’t what I was expecting and isn’t the type of middle grade I enjoy. Its strong moralizing tone takes much of the enjoyment out of the quest, and I think it underestimates how much children can learn from books without being directly told what the message is. I don’t think I’ll be looking into Shurtliff’s other books, even though Krysta gave Rump a solid review.