The Happiest Place On Earth

Me and Emily in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland.

Me and Emily in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland.

Is Disneyland the happiest place on earth? For some people, maybe it’s simply the place of the world’s longest lines, or the priciest churro you’ll ever eat. But for most people, myself included, Disneyland truly is the most magical place on earth.

Why? Why does everyone—from toddlers to adults—love Disneyland so much? I’m sure psychologists can offer technical explanations about escapism or childhood nostalgia, but loving Disneyland isn’t part of some diagnosis. Yes, it offers an escape from an often-cumbersome reality, and it takes us back to our happy childhood memories. But it’s not cheap amusement park trick. Walt Disney didn’t design Disneyland, or any of his films, to trick us, but rather to transport us.

All of Disneyland is designed to transport you. It’s dug into the ground to block out the noise of the highways nearby. There is absolutely no trash on the ground. The employees are unusually perky. The girls playing princesses are freakishly in character. The buildings along Main Street lean inward to appear taller. It’s details like these that make the Disney experience. Perhaps there is no greater attention to detail in all the world than at Disneyland. Even as an adult you feel like you’re meeting Cinderella. You feel like you’re with Mr. Toad on his wild ride. You feel like there is no world beyond Disneyland.

Me at Snow White's Wishing Well.

Me at Snow White’s Wishing Well.

So maybe that does sound a little escapist. But we all need to escape reality sometimes. Walt Disney recognized this, and it’s why his movies and theme parks are so successful. He knew that we—children and adults—wanted to go somewhere else for a day, somewhere where magic is possible and every ending is happy.

As someone who loves to read and write, I also love the stories that go along with the rides, especially the rides in Fantasy Land. The attention to detail in these rides is amazing too. It’s also adorable to see all the little girls running around in their princess costumes. And I do love the churros. But mostly, I love being transported for a day to a land of fairy stories and magic and fun. Disneyland is the happiest place on earth because you leave all the unhappiness at the gate. Then you’re free to laugh and smile and be a prince or princess for a day.

Me and Emily meeting Ariel.

Me and Emily meeting Ariel.



cinderellaWhen I was sick, my mom would camp me out on the couch with juice, a blanket, soda crackers, and Disney’s 1950 animated classic Cinderella. Needless to say, I loved that movie as a child, and now as an adult it holds a special place in my heart. I was excited when Disney studios decided to make a live action version. Well, excited and a little nervous. A part of me was afraid they would butcher the movie, try to turn Cinderella into some feminist warrior princess, or change the focus of the story to some modern political or social statement. But as trailers came out I began to relax, because it looked like it would be just as magical as the classic film.

Emily and I saw Cinderella together in Downtown Disney. (It seemed fitting.) We both loved it. Kenneth Branagh, who directed the film, kept the story true to the original, while still making it feel fresh and new. The actors were all amazing, and the costumes were incredibly magical.

This adaptation remained true to the original. Ella has a happy childhood with her mother and father. Before her mother dies, she tells Ella that she must always “have courage and be kind”. After her mother’s death, her father remarries Madame Tremaine (the fabulous Cate Blanchett). Then her father passes away, and Ella’s stepmother and sisters reduce her to nothing more than a servant. But through all of these hardships, Ella remembers to have courage and be kind.

ella-prince-big-cinderellaEveryone knows the rest of the story. Ella, dubbed Cinderella by her stepsisters, meets the prince. With the help of her fairy godmother, she goes to the ball, and runs away leaving a glass slipper behind. The prince uses this slipper to search far and wide for her, and when he finds her, they live happily ever after.

Though I think this is a timeless story, those of you who find it outdated with enjoy the subtle updates Branagh made. There’s some political intrigue, glimpses into Madame Tremaine to make her more sympathetic. But the heart of the story is the same. Ella finds her happy ending while her stepmother and sisters do not because she is kind when they are cruel.

Lily James is wonderful as Cinderella. She captures Ella’s brave but gentle spirit, her courage and strength. Richard Madden is dashing as Kit, i.e. Prince Charming. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are hilarious as Ella’s stepsisters, and Cate Blanchett is incredible as always.

stepmotherBut just as beautiful as the actors themselves are the costumes. Cinderella’s ball gown is the most magical dress I’ve ever seen, and the prince’s costumes are also incredible. Cate Blanchett wears her dresses so perfectly. All of the costumes are beautiful colors and fun styles. Sandy Powell is amazing.

But the real reason why I loved this adaptation of Cinderella so much is because it stayed true to the message. In today’s culture, girls are often told to be brave, to be fierce, to be strong and independent. These are not bad things, but all of these messages overlook a very important part of being a girl—of being a human being. Seldom are girls, or boys, told to be kind. It’s Ella’s kindness that not only wins her the prince, but also sees her through all of the hardships she faces. It’s Ella’s kindness that is her strength, and where she finds her courage. Yes, it is important to be brave and strong, but we must always remember that it is just as important—if nor more important—to be kind.

glass slipper

The Chronicles of Prydain

taranAs a kid, I loved to read fantasy. It was probably the residual effect of being so obsessed with Lord of the Rings. Of course, Tolkien is the mountaintop and after that, it’s hard to find something to measure up. For kids, there is one fantasy series that I recommend first ever time.

Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite series growing up. The books follow the story of Taran, a young boy living on a farm and working as an assistant pig keeper. Taran is the quintessential hero before he becomes a hero. He dreams of doing great deeds, fighting with swords, and going on quests. He gets his chance when evil starts to take shape in the kingdom of Prydain. The Horned King is amassing an army to fight Prince Gwydion, the ruler of the realm. While the Horned King rides through the forest, his presence frightens Taran’s pig, Hen Wen, who takes off running. Taran runs off to find Hen Wen, only to run into prince Gwydion himself.

Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander

Taran and Gwydion join forces to find Hen Wen, warn the good guys about the bad guys, and save the day. Like any good fantasy novel, though, they are not alone. Throughout the novel Taran picks up an odd assortment of followers. A feisty princess rescues him from a dungeon, a Gollum/animal sort of thing named Gurgi, a bard given into exaggeration, and a grumpy member of the fair folk. This gang is a little haphazard at first, but that is a lot of its charm. And over the course of the novel they learn to work together.

I love all the characters in this book. Taran is a great hero for young boys because he has big dreams and he learns a lot on his adventure, including how to lead and appreciate the simple things he used to take for granted. Eilonwy is the original feisty princess. She is strong without undermining Taran’s character and shows girls that they can be brave and smart and still girly. Taran’s other companions are fun and lively.

I also love how these books, the first one The Book of Three in particular, follows the hero’s journey. It also has elements of magic and the fantasy clear-cut divide of good and evil. It’s not a textbook fantasy novel, though. It’s original, in many ways because it was the first good, successful fantasy novels for children. It was a very important book to me when I was growing up, and I think a lot of bookworms from my generation feel that way about these books. They’re a great introduction to fantasy for kids, and great stories. I definitely recommend them to any kid—or adult—who enjoys fantasy novels.

Once Upon A Cloud

onceAs a child of the 90’s, it’s no surprise that I love Disney movies. As someone who also loves art, I adore the artists who work at Disney—Glen Keane, Brittney Lee, etc. One of these artists is Claire Keane, a visual development artist who worked on Tangled and Frozen. Granddaughter of Bill Keane, author of Family Circus and daughter of legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, Claire Keane recently released her debut picture book, Once Upon A Cloud.

Once Upon A Cloud is the story of a little girl named Celeste. Celeste is looking for the perfect gift for her mother, and one night she goes on a magical journey through the sky. When she returns home, she’s found the inspiration she needs to give her mother the perfect gift.

Claire Keane

Claire Keane

The story is very charming and magical, but the real magic was the art. Claire Keane used pastel to create the drawings—Celeste and her cute little puppy traversing the sky, meeting the stars and moon and sun and wind. The representations of these heavenly bodies are creative and fun. The pastels make for a perfect palette, and every page seems to sparkle. The images are simply beautiful.

It isn’t the kind of picture book that a child learning to read reads to themselves. It’s for the parents to read to the kids, though older kids won’t have a problem with the vocabulary. But all kids will want to read it over and over again just to look at the pictures. I’m contemplating buying a second copy just to frame the pages.

A page from Once Upon A Cloud.

A page from Once Upon A Cloud.

Emily and I were lucky enough to go to her book launch in Pasadena at Vroman’s Bookstore and it was so much. She talked about her inspiration, her work on Tangled, and answered questions. She also read her story to the children and adults there. The signing line was ridiculously long, a testament to the charm of her picture book, but even after all that time, she was still so friendly and sincere when we met her, doodling in our books and taking pictures. It was a great event, and I was so happy to see the event so successful.

I highly recommend the book for any little girl, though numerous little boys were there and quite enjoyed it. Even as a adult, I’ve already reread the book many times over. Once Upon A Cloud will enchant children, but also adults. It’s a brief but magical experience, and I can’t wait to see what project Claire Keane tackles next!

Celeste and the stars.

Celeste and the stars.

The Winner’s Crime

winner's crimeEverybody loves the kind of book that keeps them up all night reading. When I was younger, staying up into the wee hours of the morning in order to finish a book was not a problem. Now that I’m older, and have to get up at six, it’s a bit more of a struggle sometimes. But certain books are worth it. One such book is Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Crime.

The Winner’s Crime is book 2 in Marie Rutkoski’s Winner’s trilogy. Book 1, The Winner’s Curse, sets the stage. A Roman-like empire rules over the small territory of Herran. Kestrel is the daughter of the empire’s highest-ranking general, but she has little interest in her country’s—and father’s—interest in the military. Though her intelligence makes her good at strategy, her real love is for music.

Arin is the son of a prominent family of Herran, but that was before Valoria conquered his home and killed his family. Now he’s a slave, bought by the general’s daughter. But Arin is also strategic, and he bides his time as a slave until the moment is right for a rebellion.

YA fans can guess what happens. Arin and Kestrel develop feelings for each other despite the numerous issues between them. Things get severely complicated when Arin helps lead a rebellion to retake Herran from Valoria. Kestrel manages to escape to the capitol of Valoria, where she bargains with the emperor to make Herran an independent territory of the empire if she agrees to marry his son.

Marie Rutkoski

Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Crime picks up where the first book left off. Arin is the governor of Herran, and Kestrel is engaged to the prince, destined to be the next empress. The sexual tension between them has not alleviated after Arin becomes governor or with Kestrel’s engagement. Readers can expect a dramatic but investing relationship full of passion and tension.

But while the relationship drama keeps things anticipatory and exciting, the real pull of The Winner’s Crime—much like The Winner’s Curse—is the political drama. This may seem like a trend with me right now, after reviewing books like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I love books that have complicated and intriguing political situations. Part of this is the monarchist in me, I suppose. I like to see powerful political figures—emperors, kings, queens—making big strategic decisions, and then watching as the consequences of these decisions unravel. I like the intrigue of spies and conspiracies at courts, secret deals and arrangements. But I think most of all, I like the intelligence behind these kinds of plots.

winner's curseI’m not saying that books about romance or coming of age, etc., are boring books. I love these books. But there’s something so exciting about an intelligent plot. It heightens the drama, pulling the reader more fully into the story. It’s more like watching an intense film, your heart pounding as you keep reading to find out what happens next. These kinds of plots take a lot of thought to create. The author has to be as intelligent and strategic as the characters they are writing. It isn’t easy, which is why I really appreciate it when an author does it so well.

Marie Rutkoski did it well in The Winner’s Crime. While I LOVED the relationship drama between Arin and Kestrel, I adored everything political happening in the book. Spies, alliances, secrets, betrayal. Politics. The book was exciting for so many reasons, and it set the stage for an equally, if not more exciting, third book. I can’t believe how long I will have to wait until the last book in the trilogy comes out!

The Goose Girl

The_Goose_GirlAs I mentioned earlier, with today’s craze over fairytale retellings, such as ABC’s Once Upon A Time or Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, I wonder that certain children’s books are not more popular. Books like Ella Enchanted were huge when I was in elementary school, many but not too many years ago. Maybe these books are just as popular and I don’t realize, but the interest in fairytales is not as new as everyone thinks. Books like Ella Enchanted have been around for a good amount of time, and if I might say so, many of these re-imaginings are even better than more current ones.

One of these books is The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Shannon Hale was one of the biggest authors when I was in elementary school, and The Goose Girl was one of those books that everyone in the fourth grade had read, at least all of the girls. Or all of the girls who liked to read. It’s a retelling of a fairytale by the Grimm Brothers. Hale’s version features Princess Ani. Ani spent most of her childhood with her aunt, who taught her how to communicate with animals like horses and geese. But as the crown princess, Ani must also learn to be a lady. The social requirements and constant adherence to decorum weigh on Ani, who prefers to spend time outside with animals, but she tries very hard to become a good queen. Then, after her father’s death, she finds out that she will not be queen of her home country, but is to marry the prince of a neighboring country in order to secure peace.

Distraught but obedient, Ani journeys with her guard and her lady in waiting, Selia, through the forest to reach this new country. However, on the way, Ani finds herself betrayed by Selia, whom she thought was a friend. Selia, in conspiracy with half the guard, attempts to kill Ani and replace her, pretending to be the princess so that she can marry the prince and be queen. Ani barely escapes with her life, and must live in hiding until she can find a way to prove that she is the real princess. She takes up work as a goose girl, and learns many valuable things as she makes new friends and develops into a girl more fit to be queen.

Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale

One of the reasons why I like this book, and why I think books like this are important for elementary school girls (and boys) to read, is that Ani grows up through the course of the story. In the beginning, she is not a terrible person, but her rich upbringing makes her blind to the concerns and plights of others. As a goose girl, Ani learns to feel empathy for other people–their situations, feelings, and rights. She learns to see things beyond herself. She realizes how certain people live under unfair conditions, she learns how to think of other people besides herself, and she gains the courage to stand up for herself and others.

Ani is a good role model for young girls, not because she is perfect but because she has flaws–flaws that are not uncommon with young girls. It’s good for readers to see that we don’t need to start off as who need to be–in Ani’s case a queen–but that if we try, we can learn and grow into the person we need to be. The Goose Girl reminds us to look outside ourselves, to see the world beyond our own limited sphere. We need to see other people, what they need and how we can help them. We need sympathy, and more importantly empathy, in order to become the people we need to be. It’s an important message, especially for boys and girls as they grow up.

The Goose Girl is a fun story, with magical elements, fun characters, and a lovely romance. It’s a great novel, and a great retelling of a fairytale, for literary reasons, but it’s message is its most important feature. The moral of The Goose Girl is universal, and that’s what makes it as good today as when I first read it many years ago.


sinner-audioWith my brother playing college baseball in Tucson, Arizona, my family takes many long drives through the desert during baseball season. It’s about 8-9 hours from Santa Barbara to Tucson, depending on traffic, but it can feel like forever. The best way I’ve found to pass the time is by listening to an audiobook. My parents and I recently drove to Tucson for my brother’s opening weekend, so I listened to the audiobook for Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater, and it made me realize that there are few things better than a good audiobook.

I’m not discriminating between the audiobooks where a narrator reads the text word for word or a theatrical adaptation. Both can be great audiobooks. For example, the Sinner audiobooks consists of a female narrator readings Isabel’s chapters and a male narrator reading Cole’s chapters, and it’s amazing. The audiobook for The Lord of the Rings is a theatrical adaptation, not a narrator reading word for word, but a cast of actors reading scripts like a radio play.

Now, there are several standards for good audiobooks, the most important being that even if they are adapted, they are still close to the book. You obviously need a good voice for the narrator(s) or characters. Nothing kills an audiobook faster than a grating voice. But if it well done, an audiobook can be a great way to relive a book without reading a print copy.

I love audiobooks because they allow you to relive the story without the “work” of actually reading the book again. This might sound lazy or sacrilegious, but life can get busy and tired, and sometimes I want the easy way to relive a story. Plus, reliving the story via audiobook gives the story a new dimension. It’s in between reading and a film adaptation. It maintains the integrity of the written words, but adds a flare of drama to the experience.

The cast of the Neverwhere radio theater adaptation.

The cast of the Neverwhere radio theater adaptation.

Audiobooks also allow you to “read on the go”. You can listen in your car, while you exercise, or anytime you want. They’re really quite versatile. And so much fun. I love the narrators in Sinner and the actors in The Lord of the Rings. Some of my other favorite audiobooks are the theatrical adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia books, all of them, and Neverwhere by Nail Gaiman. And if you know of other excellent audiobooks, let me know in the comments! I’d love to check them out!