Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

May 27, 2015

(First off, and unrelated, thank you so much for your kind thoughts on my last post. They were felt and appreciated.)

Last summer, the boys and I braved a chapter book that didn't have any illustrations to accompany it. Since then, we haven't read another picture-less book--not because it was a bad experience but simply because most of the books that are at their level of comprehension and interest tend to have pictures.

After I heard Rump recommended from several trusted sources, I checked it out from the library as our next readaloud, but after skimming through it, I could see that it was another one with no pictures. I read the synopsis on the back cover to the boys, and they agreed that, pictures or no pictures, it was a book they definitely wanted to hear. (And, amusingly, after we were well into it and had completely forgotten about its lack of pictures, Bradley happened to be listening for a few minutes, and he pointed out that the teeny-tiny spools of thread that designated a change of scene were pictures. So there you go--not entirely picture-less.)

Just a few days after starting this book, Liesl Shurtliff actually did a book signing at our local bookstore (for her new book, Jack). Aaron and I went to it, and it was one of the most fun and creative signings I've ever attended. Liesl has a degree in music, dance, and theater (from my own beloved Brigham Young University), and it showed up in almost every part of the signing. She had her son, a nephew, and a friend help her perform a short play of the original Rumpelstiltskin fairytale, she gave a lively reading of part of her newest book, she held a giveaway with a lot of prizes, and she even sang her own rendition of "Somewhere Over the Beanstalk." Fun, fun, fun.

By the time we went to the signing, we were already far enough into the book to be totally committed to it, but if we hadn't been, I'm pretty sure we would have been won over. As it was, we couldn't wait to get home and find out what happened next.

Rumpelstiltskin is not usually painted in a very favorable light: a little man (I usually picture him as old, with a beard) who has this unusual ability to spin straw into gold and uses the predicament of the miller's daughter to gain some things for himself (including her firstborn child).

But what if there was more to the story? What if Rumpelstiltskin was really just a boy? And what if he didn't realize his full name was Rumpelstiltskin but instead had been known his whole life by the unflattering reduction of Rump? What if his skills were actually a curse, not a blessing? And what if he didn't have much control over the bargains he did, or didn't, make? And if all those things were true, then who was the real villain in this story? Liesl Shurtliff sets out to answer all those questions, and in the process, she puts a creative and unexpected twist on Rumpelstiltskin's story.

There's so much to love about this book, so I'm going to get my few criticisms out of the way first. Number One: As you might expect, Rump's name leads to some unfortunate humor. I think it was realistic for it to be there, but it got really old really fast. Number Two: There was a little too much of the same talk about destiny. It felt really repetitive, and I found myself wanting to skip ahead to the action. Number Three: I really loved the idea of Rump's friend, Red, but unfortunately, she never fleshed out into a real, tangible character for me. I suspect that Numbers Two and Three might improve with subsequent books (I'm just talking about tightened up writing and character development in general--I haven't heard anything about a sequel), and I'm looking forward to that.

But now let me tell you what made this book so fantastic that, not even ten minutes after finishing it, Max was already in his room listening to the audio of it. 

I love a good fairytale retelling, but how many can you think of where the main character is a boy? I'm sure they're out there, and if you know of some good ones, please tell me, but I don't know any of them. This one not only stars a boy, but in most versions, he is the villain! A double-wham win for my kids. I'm not opposed to my boys reading retellings of Beauty and the Beast or the Twelve Dancing Princesses or Cinderella, but I'll tell you what, they're going to find a story with a leading male character so much more appealing on the surface, and sometimes, as shallow as that sounds, that's what it takes to actually pick up a book and start reading. (How excited do you think I am that the next book also introduces a boy (Jack, of beanstalk fame) as the main character?)

My favorite part of the book was the whole plot involving Rump's name. He is raised in a community where names are a big deal. They basically spell out your destiny. So, as you can imagine, a boy named Rump doesn't have much hope of an exciting future. But Rump knows that's only part of his name. His mother named him as she was dying, and "Rump" is all anyone heard or understood. So Rump is on a quest to find his true name and accompanying destiny (hence, all the repetitive talk about destiny). But then he figures out he can spin straw into gold, and he gets mixed up with the miller and his daughter and the king, and the resulting mess leads him on a marvelous search where he finally discovers his true name. And it's actually pretty genius.

If you asked my kids why they loved this book so much, they'd tell you it was the trolls and the gnomes and the wildly exciting scene at the end. I liked it for the reasons I already mentioned but also for this little cottage in the woods:
"The room was large, but it was many rooms in one . . . : the kitchen, the bedroom, and the sitting room all occupied their own corners of one big open room, which was bursting with colors and patterns. Sunlight poured in from three tall windows, their curtains intricately embroidered with vines, birds, and blossoms. Four chairs circled a big oak table. They were painted in bright blue, violet, yellow, and green, and each was built in its own unique style and shape, as if they had been designed for very different people. A large bed took up an entire wall and was covered with a blanket woven in rich rainbow colors."
I read that paragraph and then said to the boys, "I want to find that cottage and go inside it. Doesn't it sound so magical?"

The whole book was just a great adventure for us, and we are definitely looking forward to reading more from Liesl Shurtliff.


  1. We also read and enjoyed this one, back when it first came out, I think. My kids were kind of into fairy tale retellings, but most of the ones we came across starred boys (mostly named Jack).

    I suspect by your list that what your kids prefer may not be boy protagonists, but action heroes -- the stories you list as too girly feature kids dancing or getting kidnapped. But books like Ella Enchanted, which has the protagonist running away and making alliances with giants were acceptable to the boys in my elementary reading club. It's a tad older than Rump, I think, but the author, Gale Levine, has a set of fairy tale funny retellings that should be at your read-aloud level (they even have some pictures!). My kids liked them as early readers.

    1. Yes, Beth, that's definitely true! They've enjoyed many books with girl protagonists that have been full of adventure and excitement. I just put one of Gail Carson Levine's early readers on hold so we can see if we like them. Thanks for the recommendation!

    2. Thanks for putting up with my pet hobby horse! I have heard "boys won't read books with girl protagonists" so often but in my experience it's just not true. It's possible that my kids are just stellar examples of humanity (actually, that's probably true :-)) but I think I'm just willing to give them books with lots of action, regardless of the main character's gender. I just saw my eight grader finishing up THE SWALLOW, about two girls, one of whom may be a ghost. So it can happen :-)

    3. We've read lots of "girl" books that my boys have loved, so I'd say that overall they're pretty well-rounded. :-) However, I'm still always happy when I find really great books with boy protagonists because I think those keeps their love of reading strong and helps them actually be more open minded to the books with girl protagonists.

  2. So glad your boys liked this one! I also think this is such a great fairytale retelling to get boys interested in the genre (I bet boys would like some of the more awesome princess books out there if they just tried them). Also, not sure if Liesl mentioned it during her signing, but I believe there is a third contracted book all about Red, so that should flesh her character out more. I haven't gotten my hands on Jack yet, but I definitely plan to.

    1. Ooooh, I'm excited to hear about the possibility of a book starring Red! While we were reading, I kept thinking, "This girl deserves her own story."


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