Jennifer Murdley hates mirrors. She hates being reminded of her ugliness. Why can’t she look more like her beautiful mother? Or her thin, blond classmate, Sharra? Or, most of all, like the gorgeous Jennifer in her dreams? But no, the mirrors tell her – she will always be “the kid in the plain brown wrapper,” never beautiful.
Why else would the strange old man at the magic shop have given her a toad, claiming it was “a perfect match” for her?
But over the next few days, Jennifer learns that Mr. Elives had something else in mind when he gave her the toad. Who, by the way, can talk.
What worked: I was blown away when I realized that Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a twist not only on “The Frog Prince,” but on a lesser-known fairy tale. The latter tale, in particular, is brilliantly re-imagined.
Both tales work fairly well to express the theme of inner vs. outer beauty – a theme I wish my seven-year-old self had paid more attention to when I first picked up the book at my grade school’s book fair.
I’m sad to say, that day many years ago, my initial interest in the book was based on the image of the shining blond-haired girl on the mass-market cover (I was in the first stages of my Sweet Valley obsession at the time – beware a future Nostalgic Review of those 😉 ), and when I realized that the main character didn’t look like that, I quickly lost interest. Again, not one of my prouder moments.
Which is why I think this would be a great book for teachers and parents to read to kids as early as second grade – with one caveat, which I’ll explain below.
What didn’t: Although the inner-vs.-outer-beauty message as a whole is excellent (I love Mr. Elives’ comment that “most mirrors are mere errors”), Jennifer Murdley’s Toad makes an unfortunate assumption about the concept of beauty. The story assumes that there is a single, concrete definition of “beautiful.”
What disturbed me most was that even Jennifer’s parents, as well-meaning as they were, believed their daughter wasn’t beautiful. As if only certain physical features can be considered attractive. Again, I realize Coville meant well, but I wish he’d adjusted the story’s message to say that every person is beautiful – that beauty is a subjective concept with many definitions. I think that would have been a better, more self-esteem-boosting – and truer – message.
Other than that, there were two smaller issues that bugged me:
(1) how easily Jennifer accepted that Bufo could talk. Even fantasy needs to be somehow grounded in reality. If a character is quick to accept something like a talking toad, there needs to be a reason.
(2) one character who stuck around to help Jennifer solve the story’s main conflict had little reason or motivation to do so. Again, things like that need to be explained.
Overall: The story has an excellent blend of humor and seriousness, and the black-and-white illustrations, like those in Sarah’s Unicorn, capture each character beautifully, adding to the tone of magic and mystery.
The message could have been improved – teachers and parents should point out to their students and children the problem with the story’s definition of beauty – and certain plot elements could have been explained more fully, but overall this is a very important book for children to read before they fall into the many self-esteem traps our culture still needs to get rid of.
will might be a future Nostalgic Review of Coville’s other Magic Shop books.