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Review: Nelly May Has Her Say April 16, 2013

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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Nelly May Has Her SayThere is an Italian proverb I love that goes “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” The definition of a folktale is a story handed down over generations, changing and transforming with each person who retells it and there is nothing I love more than a really well-told tale. At this point in history though, I sometimes feel that it is the same handful of stories, particularly from the Western European tradition that get retold in picture books again and again and again. So it was a nice surprise to read Nelly May Has Her Say by Cynthia DeFelice, a retelling of a slightly more obscure tale from the UK, the entertaining ‘Master of all Masters’.

The story form is simple–a new servant arrives at a grand house and is informed by the owner that she must use his fancy language when referring to such everyday things as the dog, bed, pants and water. All is well, until the night when an unexpected crisis leads to the servant having to use every single nonsense  name in a single sentence and she is so frustrated that she quits. The humor comes from the repetition that builds to the crisis and of course the sound of the crazy words.

DeFelice doesn’t change much about the story’s events, beyond adding some details about the servant and why she is looking for work. Her main beautiful addition is the nonsense words, which she changes from the older style into something more energetic and entertaining to young ears.  “Master of all Masters” becomes “Most Excellent of all Masters”, the bed, instead of “barnacle” becomes “restful slumberific” and the house, instead of “high topper mountain” becomes “roof-topped castleorum”. The effect of all the names said together in one long run-on sentence by Nelly is snappy and high-spirited, making this a great choice for a read-aloud. Henry Cole’s bright illustrations perfectly capture the pondorous Lord Pinkwinkle, his loyal dog and no-nonsense Nelly May. Best of all, the tale ends happily, with Nelly May asserting herself as a true heroine should.

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