Word Play: Polly Shulman's fairy tales meet true life

It's not hard to explain the appeal of magic. Got to clean your room? Wave a wand! Hungry? Utter a spell and a table appears, loaded with all the foods you like.

Of course, there are always complications. What spell turns the pot off, so you won't drown in oatmeal? How should you word the wish for riches, so you don't get clobbered by a falling bag of gold?

No one needs the moral spelled out: It's not that simple, stupid. There are rules. And the rules are what make stories about magic work. The classic example is Edward Eager's still avidly devoured 1954 book, "Half Magic," in which an enchanted coin grants only half of any stated wish.

Polly Shulman's novel "The Grimm Legacy" (Putnam: $16.99 ages 10 and up) has a terrific premise: The magical objects from fairy tales are real. Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm, collected not only fairy tales but also powerful items — invisibility cloaks, seven-league boots, talking mirrors and the like — and their collection made its way to the New York Circulating Material Repository. There it is all neatly cataloged as the Grimm Collection, tagged with modified Dewey decimal numbers and kept safe in a temperature-regulated vault in the basement of a lovely East Side brownstone.

Like Harry Potter's Hogwarts, the New York Circulating Material Repository is a complex magical universe with a delicate relationship to the mundane world outside. It is, as its name implies, a kind of lending library with a solid nonmagical purpose. Patrons include theater companies who want historical props and people throwing dinner parties who don't want to own fondue pots. As in any good library, certain rare and delicate items do not circulate, like Marie Antoinette's wig (not the one she was beheaded in — but its story is still a good one). Only when patrons reach an inner circle of trust are they admitted to the special archives.

Elizabeth Rue is the new girl at a fancy New York private school. She's definitely a Cinderella, step-sisters and all. Her adventure begins when her favorite teacher recommends her for a part-time job at the Repository. There are details in this book to remind any reader of things that intrigued them about fairy tales. I was always fascinated by magical messengers. Who was the old woman who gives the soldier the cloak of invisibility along with advice about how to follow the 12 dancing princesses? Elizabeth's teacher sees that she has passed her first test of trustworthiness apparently based on a homeless woman's nod of approval.

The description of Elizabeth's initiation into the job of page — the person who brings material up from the vaults at the patron's request — will win the hearts of library-lovers of any age. The rules of magic and the rules of libraries have a similar appeal, and what could be more magical than messages carried by pneumatic tube?

Shulman captures that special satisfaction of discovering that not only can you handle your first job, you're actually good at it. Elizabeth's talent for the work is obvious because she can recognize magic with her nose:

"The smell was faint, but the sensation was powerful, flooding over me like a memory of…of what, though? Summer rain on cement? Rye toast at my grandmother's? Something floral and fragile, like individual soap bubbles … no, something thick, like milk … but briny … no, lemony … I took deeper and deeper sniffs, chasing the smell farther and farther out of my mind's reach.…"

Other pages, all smart kids from nearby schools, recognize magic by its shimmer or distinguish it by feel.

It turns out that powerful objects are disappearing from the library, replaced by worthless replicas with a weak magic that quickly dissipates. A page has also disappeared, apparently carried off by a huge bird. No one knows whom to trust, but true to teen form, the pages stick together, bound in part by distrust of grown-ups, in part by their own complex social drama.

Of course there's a villain, but refreshingly, there's little in the way of violence, outside of a bit of cudgel-waving. "If these magic objects are so strong and powerful," Elizabeth asks, "how come you don't have people using them to take over the world?" Marc answers: "There's magic swords and sticks that can beat people up, but that's nothing compared to guns and bombs." And Anjali adds, "Or like the enchanted ram's horn that lets you speak to someone miles away. Hello? Cellphone, anybody?" There is a funny chase scene in which the pursuer and the pursued each have only one of the seven-league boots, but Shulman keeps the action satisfyingly small; there's more outwitting than overpowering.

It takes courage to combine a story about fairy-tale magic with a story about the cool crowd, crushes and sneaking out to kiss your boyfriend at a basketball game. ( J.K. Rowling did it with Harry Potter, but she took several volumes to get there.) Shulman argues that fairy tales contain quite a lot of useful advice about surviving middle school. A true heroine would rather have the brave swineherd than the handsome prince anyday, but princesses don't really get to choose; they are only meant to marry princes.

Think about that for a while, and you realize why it's better to be the feisty nerd than the popular kid: You've got more possibilities. The popular kids — school royalty — only get to hang out with the court (and what dull people ladies-in-waiting are!), while the nerds — swineherds and such — get to ride magic carpets. That's why the 12 dancing princesses sneak off every night! There's just very little excitement in being a princess.

Bolle's Word Play column appears at http://www.latimes.com/books.

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