Bibliography: Zelinsky, Paul O. Rapunzel. New York, New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin Books USA), 1997. ISBN-13: 978-0525456070
Plot Summary: A couple are expecting a baby. The wife sees a sorceress’ garden and falls in love with the rapunzel growing there. She is suddenly overcome with the desire to eat it, a desire so desperate that she swears she will die if she cannot have it. Therefore, the concerned husband sneaks into the garden and steals the rapunzel. The wife is happy, but wants more. When he goes into the garden for the second time, he is caught by the sorceress. The sorceress raises her arms at him, her dark green cloak billowing about her menacingly as she tells him, “How dare you come here to steal my rapunzel! Oh, it will serve you ill!” The husband begs for mercy and the sorceress strikes a deal. He can take as much rapunzel as he needs to, but he will have to give his first-born child to her. Because he worries about his wife’s health, he agrees. The wife lives and gives birth, “And when the child was born, the sorceress appeared in the room. She named the baby girl Rapunzel and carried her away.” The sorceress raises the girl with dedication but also domination. Once Rapunzel grows up, the sorceress locks her in a tower out in the woods. There is no door to the tower, but the sorceress can come and go as she pleases because Rapunzel “would unpin her…braids, wind them around a hook on the window frame, and let them tumble all the way to the ground. The sorceress would grab hold of them and hoist herself up.” Rapunzel lives an isolated life, never seeing anyone outside the sorceress. One day, she sings to the birds and a prince hears it while he is riding through the woods. He becomes interested to just who that voice belongs to. He is able to sneak into the tower, and he and Rapunzel meet and fall in love. He visits frequently and they even marry within the tower. Eventually, Rapunzel gets pregnant and the sorceress disowns her when she discovers this. She gets thrown out into the woods where she eventually gives birth to twins. The prince tries to return to the tower, but the sorceress scares him into falling down. He loses his eyesight in this ordeal. He travels through the woods, lost and bereft. Rapunzel discovers him. Her tears cure his blindness and they are able to live happily ever after with their twins in the prince’s home.
Critical Analysis: A theme of the book is that there are different types of love, some good, some not. The sorceress and Rapunzel’s parents do not have a healthy love toward Rapunzel. The sorceress and the parents contrast one another, with the former being clinging and dominating and the latter weak-willed enough to give their own flesh-and-blood away. Zelinsky does a powerful depiction of the sorceress taking away Rapunzel from her parents. While he describes the event in one page, he illustrates the whole thing onto two other pages, depicting it without any words, amplifying the seriousness of what has happened. The parents’ faces are interesting as they look on the sorceress walking away with the baby. The mother looks exhausted and unsure, while the father is touching his throat, looking lost and distressed.
The reader can see that the parents regret what they have done, but it is too late. If the parents’ love for Rapunzel was weak, the sorceress’ love dominating, then the healthiest love would have to be from the Prince. While parents may be concerned that the Prince tricks Rapunzel into letting him up, the relationship otherwise proves to be a mutual love once he “began to speak to [Rapunzel] in such a friendly way that her fear was soon gone.” They are dedicated to one another, even marrying within the tower.
The illustrations are exquisite, oil paintings done to the style of Italian Renaissance, where Rapunzel has glimmering gold-red hair, and most of the tones are warm and earthy. Zelinsky actually states in an afterword that he found Italy fitting as it was one of the original countries of the tale. Not to mention, it went well with the symbols of the story. Zelinsky states “…the very image of a tower evokes the Italian landscape, where the campanile, or bell tower, plays a prominent role in architectural tradition. (The closeness of the word to Campanula, the name of the bellflower genus to which rapunzel belongs, helped me believe I was setting out on the right track.)”
A motif that occurs is how Rapunzel, named after a plant, is passed onto different people like she herself is no more than a plant, a thing take ownership on. She is given off to the sorceress by her own blood, the sorceress passes her off to the woods, and, though, she and the Prince’s relationship is the healthiest, he does in some ways has power over while she is stuck in the tower. He can come and go as he likes, she cannot. It is only until both are thrown out to the world that the relationship is more at level. Both have been harmed and have been surviving on their own when they meet up again. Rapunzel is even given the power to cure the prince of his blindness, therefore having him rely on her as much as she him.
A theme that ultimately pervades until the end is isolation. The sorceress isolates Rapunzel from the world. She further isolates her by disowning the girl and tossing her out to woods to fend for herself. The prince is eventually isolated himself once he becomes blind and lost for a year in the wilderness. Even the compositions of illustrations take to this theme, highlighting the vastness of the world. The rooms are all large, showing the human forms small in comparison. Even the narrow tower is larger on the inside because of enchantments by the sorceress. Ultimately, the prince and Rapunzel overcome this isolation by relying on one another. It is a great lesson for children, that tragedy and pain can happen, but they are not eternal. People can overcome pain and lead happy lives. It is no wonder this fairy tale still resonates to this day.
Review Excerpt and Awards won:
Awards and honors: 1998 Caldecott Winner; 1998 Carl Sandburg Award Winner.
Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, posted online on June 24, 20101 and originally written October 1, 1997:
“[Zelinsky] draws on many of [versions of the story] to create a formal, spare text that is more about the undercurrents between characters than crime and punishment. Feeling ‘her dress growing tight around her waist’ a woman conceives the desire for an herb from the neighboring garden—rendered in fine detail with low clipped hedges, elaborate statuary and even a wandering pangolin—that causes her to lose her child to a witch. Ensconced for years in a tower, young Rapunzel meets the prince, ‘marries’ him immediately, is cast into the wilderness when her own dress begins to tighten, gives birth to twins, and cures her husband’s blindness with her tears at their long-awaited reunion. Suffused with golden light, Zelinsky’s landscapes and indoor scenes are grandly evocative, composed and executed with superb technical and emotional command.”
He draws on many of these to create a formal, spare text that is more about the undercurrents between characters than crime and punishment. Feeling “her dress growing tight around her waist” a woman conceives the desire for an herb from the neighboring garden—rendered in fine detail with low clipped hedges, elaborate statuary and even a wandering pangolin—that causes her to lose her child to a witch. Ensconced for years in a tower, young Rapunzel meets the prince, “marries” him immediately, is cast into the wilderness when her own dress begins to tighten, gives birth to twins, and cures her husband’s blindness with her tears at their long-awaited reunion.Suffused with golden light, Zelinsky’s landscapes and indoor scenes are grandly evocative, composed and executed with superb technical and emotional command.
Connections: This book is a great way to facilitate discussions on how people should love and respect one another, including asking if it was right for the parents to give Rapunzel, if it was right for the prince to enter the tower without asking Rapunzel, and why was it wrong for the sorceress to hide Rapunzel in a tower. Instructors can also teach students to write on what are the main ideas of certain scenes and how it affects the story. Rapunzel can be a teaching tool on how to summarize stories. This book can also help demonstrate to children how to see that characters can carry both positive and negative characteristics and write them down. For example, it can be considered a good trait of Rapunzel’s father to want to help his wife with her health. It can be considered a bad trait that he does not stand up to to sorceress or even taking her food without her permission.