A new book from Kate DiCamillo always gives reason to celebrate, and her latest fairy tale is no exception. The Puppets of Spelhorst is the first of a trio of novellas called the Norendy Tales. Linked together by a common atmosphere and setting, each book is to be illustrated in black and white by a different artist. (DiCamillo first ventured into the atmosphere of this series with a bonus fairy tale called “The Tapestry at Norendy” included in the 20th anniversary edition of The Tale of Despereaux.)
The Puppets of Spelhorst salutes the power of storytelling through a tale of five puppets—a king, a wolf, an owl, a boy and a girl—who are passed from person to person, before finally coming to life in a play through the hands of two young girls and a maid. The book opens with a lonely old sea captain named Spelhorst buying a box of puppets because the girl puppet reminds him of his long-lost love, Annalise. As the puppets wait “to be part of a story,” their distinct personalities and desires emerge, accompanied by DiCamillo’s trademark dashes of humor. For instance, the wolf puppet is obsessed with his sharp teeth, while the owl puppet says wise things and dreams of flying. But as the girl puppet tells everyone, “We are all here in the dark together. How will it help us to fight with one another?”
The Puppets of Spelhorst’s short chapters of simple yet often profound prose beg to be read aloud. This exciting, fast-paced story contains several pointed touches of female empowerment as well as a glorious surprise ending that is revealed in a full-page spread. Julie Morstad’s illustrations do an excellent job of setting an old-fashioned, fairy-tale mood while achieving a delicate feat: making these puppets look both inanimate yet lively. Morstad’s art contributes to both this tale’s momentum and meaning—such as when the wolf puppet is carried away by a fox, or when Spelhorst gazes regretfully at the girl puppet.
As the girl puppet concludes, “Stories without end—watching them unfold, being a part of their unfolding—what a blessing that would be.” Such a sentiment might be applied to the experience of reading DiCamillo’s books. With all the makings of a classic fairy tale, The Puppets of Spelhorst skillfully addresses many of DiCamillo’s favorite themes: the power of love and togetherness; the many unexpected wonders of the world; the importance of following one’s dreams; and the majesty of stories and storytelling.