Far Far Away
Far Far Away
Written by Tom McNeal
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Grades 6 and up
Acclaimed author Tom McNeal weaves a tale both eerily familiar and hauntingly new in his first solo young adult novel, Far Far Away. Having been abandoned by a capricious mother, neglected by his ever-grieving father, and left impoverished and friendless by a string of hapless circumstances, Jeremy Johnson Johnson lives a lonely, despondent life. He also communicates with the centuries-old ghostly voice of Jacob Grimm, half of the famous German sibling pair of fairy tale progenitors and Jeremy’s only friend. It is Jacob’s voice that warns Jeremy of the trouble he could get into if he succumbs to the charms of Ginger Boultinghouse, the spunky redhead who falls under a spell and in love with Jeremy. And it is only Jacob’s voice that can save Jeremy and Ginger when the events that transpire after one fateful decision lands the two teenagers in the middle of a modern-day fairy tale as dark and sinister as some of the Brothers Grimm’s original tellings. On par with the likes of Neil Gaiman, McNeal’s style is both direct and lyrical, fashioning a story world that traverses the realistic and fantastical, the humorous and the slightly horrific. With descriptions like, “One of these girls was Ginger Boultinghouse, whose coppery hair grew long and wild and whose amber eyes possessed the hue, sparkle, and–or so it seemed–effect of a strong lager,” characters seem to exist in a timeless plane, and what happens to them feels simultaneously foreshadowed and unforeseen. Jacob’s voice, in particular, stands out as distinct, intelligent, and elegant, compelling readers and characters alike to “Listen, if you will…” to all he says. Far Far Away is more than another novelized retelling of a fairy tale; it is a smart and unabashedly entertaining reminder of why fairy tales continue to resonate with and fascinate readers across time, space, and in Jeremy’s and Jacob’s case, spiritual worlds. What better way to spend a chilly autumn day than with a book like this?
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Characters’ Names. Fiction writers often select names for their characters that comment on or match those characters’ personalities. Ginger, for example, is a feisty girl with red hair. Invite students to contemplate the names of the other characters in the novel and reflect on why McNeal might have named them as such. What about the characters with unique names, such as Possy and Conk? Even though McNeal provides some narrative explanation for their names, why else might they be particularly appropriate for the characters? After these discussions, encourage them to reflect on characters’ names from other stories the class has read during the school year, and have them reconsider the names of characters in their own fiction writing.
- Studying Characters’ Voice. Each of the characters has a strong and unique voice. Have students select compelling passages and create audiorecordings in the characters’ voices. What mood do they want to project? What should they do with their reading voices to convey this? The haunting qualities of the text can be lifted from the pages in this way.
- Strengthening Voice in Writing. Jacob’s narrative voice is distinct in its commentary on the contemporary world of Jeremy and Ginger. Have students practice writing with a voice from a particular time period in the past to narrate and describe events in contemporary times. Have students research the syntax, vernacular, idiosyncrasies, and other linguistic characteristics of the time period by examining primary source documents and literature from that era. As a first writing exercise, you might encourage them to use that voice to narrate events from a day in the life of a student at the school. Eventually, invite them to try using a distinct voice like this in their other writing assignments.
- Fairy Tale Maxims. Fairy tales often teach some sort of maxim, or truth about life, though not as blatantly as fables do. Some of these maxims are peppered throughout Jacob’s narration, as he comments on the events surrounding Jeremy. For example, when the townspeople decide to publicly shun Jeremy, Jacob muses, “No matter the time, no matter the place, a village will often take a false story into its clenched fist” (p. 90). Later, while recalling some of his own memories, Jacob recites, “One does not know love until it arrives, and its arrival will always surprise” (p. 122). Have students create a class list of these maxims as they come across them in their reading. Then have them select on of the maxims that resonates with them, and create a multi-genre portfolio of stories, poems, essays, etc. that reflect on and respond to that maxim.
- Stories within Stories. McNeal places several of the Grimms’ tales within the narrative of Jeremy’s story. What effect does this storytelling technique have on the overarching story about Jeremy? How does it reveal more about the characters or perhaps foreshadow the plot? Other novels that utilize this approach are Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky (see our entry at http://classroombookshelf.blogspot.com/2013/01/starry-river-of-sky-written-by-grace.html) and Louis Sachar’s Holes. Have students compare and contrast how each novel incorporates stories within the main story. As another extension activity, challenge your students to write their own story-within-a-story.
- Literary Allusions and Archetypes. Aside from the direct references to the Grimm fairy tales, a number of fairy tale allusions and archetypes pop up throughout the novel as well. Why might an author include literary allusions or archetypes? What should a reader know in order to understand them? Have students identify some of the allusions—or what they think are allusions—in Far Far Away and brainstorm their meanings. Then have students investigate their actual meanings, perhaps by reading some excerpts from the primary sources, and then discuss how those allusions foreshadow or relate to what’s happening in the novel. For students who are brand new to the concept of allusions, you might want to first model these activities with a book like Previously (see Futher Explorations section below), which provides a variety of allusions to a series of fairy tales. Guide them through similar activities with archetypes by first identifying common archetypes in fairy and folk tales and then identifying which ones McNeal includes in the novel and why.
- Focused Folk Tale and Fairy Tale Study. In small groups or as a whole class, select one of the Brothers Grimm’s tales to study in depth. Use references like SurLaLune (see Further Explorations below) as well as materials from the local library to gather as much information about the tale as possible. What was the original version of the tale? How does that version compare to the one in Children’s and Household Tales? How did readers respond to it? How did the Grimm Brothers revise their own tales over the years? Why? For fun, hold a quiz game like Uncommon Knowledge, the trivia game Jeremy appears on in the novel. Have each student write a trivia question or two, then divide the class into teams to answer them.
- Comparing and Contrasting “Fairy Tale Fathers.” Along with the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson are two of the most famous collectors and recorders of European fairy tales. Divide students into small groups, each assigned to one of these authors, and have them closely study their fairy tales. Remind students to pay attention to narrative style, character development, and plot especially. Then have students mix up their groups in a jigsaw fashion to create Venn diagrams or other appropriate charts that show the similarities and differences across the authors. Make sure students support their claims with specific evidence from the fairy tales themselves.
- The Grimms in Popular Culture. The legacy of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm has spanned time, space, and media. Consider the resurgence of fairy tales and the Grimm brothers over the last decade in literature, film, and currently in prime time television. Launch an inquiry unit that explores how each of these media presents the Grimm brothers and their work. For example, have the class watch a few episodes of the television show “Grimm” or “Once Upon a Time”and examine what elements align with original or primary source information, and what elements were creatively inspired by–but noticeably different from–that information. Encourage students to share what they’ve learned through one of these forms of popular media themselves.
- Examining the Privilege and Perspective of European Fairy Tales. Many of the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm Brothers are not unique to European oral tradition. In fact, tales with similar plot lines, characters, and themes can be found in numerous other cultural traditions (e.g., Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is a Zimbabwean version of the Cinderella story; Lon Po Po is a Chinese version of the Little Red Riding Hood story). Why, then, do the European versions get shared over and over in our classrooms while versions from other cultures get limited time in the spotlight? Have students locate a wide variety of diverse cultural versions of popular fairy tales by searching local bookstores and libraries or searching online. Invite them to read aloud, act out, or create digital storytelling versions of the tales, and stage a classroom revue to share the tales with other students.
- Revising and Sanitizing Fairy Tales. Read the following article about how the more conservative and “sanitized” fairy tales became, the more popular they grew over time: http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/Tech-Culture/2012/1220/Brothers-Grimm-saved-classic-fairy-tales-by-changing-them-forever. Discuss some of the revisions that have been made to the original tales–even the revisions made by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm themselves–and whether students agree that such revisions were necessary. Have students research the sociopolitical conditions at the times corresponding with certain revisions (e.g., Disney’s recent decision to have the princess in The Princess and the Frog, which is based on the Brothers Grimm’s The Frog Prince be African American) to deepen their contemplation of the reasons and effectiveness of such revisions. You might also refer to the website of Kay Vandergrift, Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, which uses digital texts and hypertext to show the evolution and many reworkings of the details in Snow White: http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/snowwhite.html.
Tom McNeal’s website
Tom McNeal’s reading and discussion of Far Far Away
Interview with Tom McNeal about Far Far Away
Far Far Away official book trailer
Websites with Grimms’ Fairy Tales
Ahlberg, A. (2007). Previously. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Almond, D. (2000). Kit’s wilderness. New York: Delacorte Press.
Baker, E.D. (2010). The wide-awake princess. New York: Bloomsbury.
Bernstein, N. (2005). Magic by the book. Ill. by B. Kulikov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Compestine, Y. C. (2009). A banquet for hungry ghosts: A collection of deliciously frightening tales. Ill. by C. Polheumus. New York: Holt.
Gaiman, N. (2008). The graveyard book. New York: HarperCollins.
Gidwitz, A. (2010). A tale dark & Grimm. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.
Gidwitz, A. (2012). In a glass Grimmly: Companion to A tale dark & Grimm. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.
Gidwitz, A. (2013). The Grimm conclusion. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.
Mlynowski, S. (2012). Fairest of all. New York: Scholastic Press.
Napoli, D. J. (2000). Beast. Ill. by E. Furrow. New York: Simon Pulse.
Zipes, J. (1988). The Brothers Grimm: From enchanted forests to the modern world. New York : Routledge, 1988.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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