Questions and names — those are two reasons Liesl Shurtliff chose to retell the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.
“The Rumpelstiltskin tale is one of the most mysterious fairy tales I’ve read,” Shurtliff said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “There are so many unanswered questions.
“Who is this little man? Where did he come from? How did he learn to spin straw into gold? What is so powerful and important about his name that he keeps it secret?”
These are some of the questions Shurtliff answers in her middle-reader novel, “Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin” (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99).
The original tale portrays Rumpelstiltskin as a mysterious, wizened old man with a long beard who sings and dances around a fire in the middle of a wood.
Not Shurtliff. She presents him as a lonely but likable 12-year-old boy, small for his age, who lives in an unnamed town, where people are the only things with names — and one’s name determines one’s destiny.
“I’m fascinated by names, their meanings and the impact they can have on our sense of identity,” Shurtliff said. “I decided it would be interesting to tell a story where a name is not just what people call you, but the very thing that determines your destiny.”
Unfortunately, his mother, a spinner, dies before she can say his full name. “Rump ” is all she manages to whisper before breathing her last. No one in the town but his Gran; his good friend, Red (Red Riding Hood) and her family knows it’s only half a name. Inevitably, Rump becomes the butt of many jokes.
His destiny is to discover his true name. That journey begins when he finds his mother’s spinning wheel in his Gran’s woodpile.
Shurtliff said she was terrified to share her book with even her own children because children are so honest. “They won’t beat around the bush in telling you they don’t like your book; they just won’t finish it,” she said.
Her fears were unfounded.
“My daughter adores it,” Shurtliff said. Neighborhood children, as well as the children in schools she has visited, responded with enthusiasm to the story.
All of the key elements of the original fairy tale are honored in this telling aimed at children ages 8 to 12
There is a miller with a beautiful but not so smart daughter, a king greedy for gold and a little man who can spin straw into gold — for a price, including the queen’s first child.
However, this tale includes gold-loving pixies, messenger-delivering gnomes, good witches and ugly, smelly trolls who are not as wicked as most people imagine.
Shurtliff says the trolls are usually the part of the book children like best.
That might have something to do with the fact that the trolls love to have mud ball fights, bathe in mud and drink something called “sludge,” a slimy stew that includes wriggling worms. “Sludge is good for you,” say the trolls. “Simple to cook and it makes you strong and wise.”
The author said two things that have influenced her work are the writing and storytelling culture in Utah — she grew up in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, and the Utah landscape of Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell and Arches National Park.
“These places have a fantastical essence, so magic felt very near and real to me,” Shurtliff said. “I think that’s one of the many reasons I write children’s fantasy.”
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