There’s no need to introduce Jane Yolen, writer of children’s and young adult books whose name was pretty much all over my childhood book shelves. She is most famous for writing folklore and fantasy, reinventing classic tales and often paired with illustrators whose work will look immediately familiar to any child of the 90’s. This latest collection is certainly composed of typical Yolen material, but, after reading “A Knot of Toads,” a story featuring a long dormant evil forces brought to life in a small Scottish town, I realized that The Emerald Circus is not for kids at all. (By which I mean kids who don’t have nightlights. Because I definitely needed one.)
The stories are hit-or-miss. Some follow a pattern that, for Yolen, is almost formulaic by now, taking a classic tale and subverting its original intent with adult themes or feminist reprisals. The story “Lost Girls,” about Wendy arriving in Neverland and then trying to unionize a collection of “lost girls” is a great example of this.
My favorite was perhaps the title story, which follows Dorothy Gale, picked up in a twister — as in the original narrative — but instead of landing in Oz, she finds her way into a circus. Yolen has a distinct form of sarcasm that, rather than turning its nose up in cynicism, seems to twinkle its eye in a kind of delightful inside joke.
If you love Jane Yolen, you’ll love this book. No doubt. It is clever and funny and it definitely has its beautiful moments. There is also the fairly interesting feature of Yolen’s notes on each story — how they came about, both creatively and pragmatically — combined with a related poem.
My recommendation is to pick up a story every once in a while, rather than reading them all at once. ‘Round about the story called “The Gift of the Magicians,” which is a Beauty and the Beast vs. Gift of the Magi mashup, the whole project started to feel a bit gimmicky, which isn’t quite fair to Yolen’s well established talents. Yes, she has a certain schtick that she follows, and yes, that schtick can get a bit stale, but picking up the book from time to time with fresh eyes (which is, honestly, the way all short story collections should be read) would circumvent some of the formulaic feeling.