(This review first appeared in November 2005)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast, by Robin McKinley. Harper Trophy (1978), 245 pages.

This is a young adult book (ages ten and up, according to Harper Trophy) that doesn’t so much retell as flesh out, giving significantly more background information, dialogue, and characterization to the original story by the Brothers Grimm.  (The use of “retelling” in the subtitle to me implies that the author changed important details; in fact Beauty is true to the original. Of course, the original is only a thousand words or so, so the fleshing out here is extensive.)

To date, this is the best YA novel that I’ve read as an adult. The writing is both elegant and soothing, particularly when Beauty describes her love of nature and horses, and when her father encounters the magical happenings within the Beast’s castle. The fantastical elements in the Beast’s storyline all feel completely believable, and McKinley even manages to convey Beauty’s ambivalent and exceedingly conflicted feelings toward him in a way that seems perfectly plausible (considering the fact that she begins to fall in love with a creature said to have foot-long claws).

I saddled Greatheart and led him out, his big feet leaving not-quite-regular saucer marks in the frosty grass. I hesitated as we came to the stream; we usually went around the shop near the stream, then up the little hill towards the town, and I’d haul us water from the well when we rode by it. Today I led the horse to the stream, and waited, watching him: He lowered his head, wrinkled his black nose at the running water, and blew; then he lowered his muzzle and drank. He didn’t turn into a frog, nor into a griffin and fly away. He raised his head, slobbering over his last mouthful, and pricked his ears at me without any awareness of having done something out of the ordinary. I walked a pace or two upstream and knelt to scoop up some water with my hands, looping the reins over my wrist. The water was so cold it made my teeth ache with the shock; but it was sweet and very good, better than the dull water from the respectable well. I didn’t turn into a frog either, and when I stood up the landscape looked just as it always had. I mounted and we jogged slowly off.