Sylvie had an amazing life, but she didn't get to live it very often. What good were potions and disguises if no one came along to scare you or save you or kiss you behind the waterfall? Week after week nothing changed. Years went by. The sparkles on Sylvie's dress began to fade, and a fine dust coated the leaves, turning the green woods gray.
Once in a while, it looked as though something might happen. The ground trembled slightly, then nothing more. People got used to these disturbances. King Walther scarcely noticed. He sat about playing cards with the goatherd. Even the wolves stopped lurking and just lay in the heat, panting like house dogs. It got so that one day Sylvie sat down on a stone at the edge of the lake and wept.
"Come on," she whispered fiercely. "Come on! Something happen!"
At that moment, a fan of light began opening in a corner of the sky, sending flashes of color across the water. Sylvie wiped her eyes as the woods brightened. A breeze flew through the treetops, knocking against branches as it went.
"Rawwwwk! Reader! Reader!" cried an orange bird, bursting into the air.
"Booook open!" groaned a bullfrog. "Ooopen! Boook open!"
Sylvie sprang to her feet, excitement and fear catching in her throat. How far had she wandered? A distant trumpet sounded, and the forest echoed with clumping hooves, flapping wings, shouting knights, fluttering dowagers, all racing to get to their places.
Sylvie had the farthest to go -- all the way to page 3 -- but she knew the shortcuts between descriptions and arrived, hot-cheeked, just as a shadow moved over the land and the face of an enormous child peered down on her.
She didn't care for the look on that face -- it was a boy with a pouty lip -- but she could spare him no more than a glance. Her dialogue began right away.
"Father," she said, "I cannot marry Prince Riggeloff."
Her father was breathing hard. He'd had to run in heavy robes from page 13. "Not marry Riggeloff?" cried the king. Sweat stood on his pasty brow. "For heaven's sake, child, he is handsome, rich..."
"Kind, brave," continued Princess Sylvie. "Yes, I am aware of his qualities."
"He has everything."
"So have I," the girl replied, dodging around an illustration.
"You don't have a husband."
"Nor want one. I don't want anything," she said, her green eyes flashing, "except -- "
But Sylvie, who had arrived at the top of page 4, never got to say what it was she wanted. A gob of strawberry jam hurtled from the sky and landed with a splot, just two words in front of her, spattering her blue shoes. She looked up. The boy was biting into a peanut butter sandwich. He wasn't even listening!
"Dumb story," he humphed and, without bothering to wipe away the jam, he slammed the book shut and tossed it....Well, Sylvie could only imagine that he tossed it, for she found herself and King Walther and all the courtiers spinning around, then bumping to a stop at a backward angle. They waited in darkness, but the boy did not reappear.
"Watch out!" came the high, scratchy voice of Pingree the Jester. "Get off of me, you lunk!"
"Sorry," sounded the basso voice of the king's chief councillor.
"If only you had as much wit as you have width!"
The backup lights buzzed and flickered and came on. The sky, a storybook blue, appeared through the castle window, and the ladies-in-waiting picked themselves off the floor and righted their chairs.
The king was rubbing his hip. "Are you all right, child?"
"I suppose so," said Sylvie.
"One of these days we'll get a real Reader."
She gave him a doubtful look.
"We used to have them, lots of them," he said.
"Father, we never had lots of Readers."
"Well, we had good ones. They paid attention."
Sylvie mumbled something.
"What was that, dear?"
"Don't say that. This is a book. We have to say everything."
"I said, maybe they found something better to do than read our silly story."
Queen Emmeline had been gazing critically in a mirror, poking at her ruined hairdo. "Sylvie," she said in her warning voice.
"Never mind," said the king. "She knows it isn't true. The sun shines. Readers read."
Sylvie had heard all that before. It didn't make her feel any better.
"We have a big responsibility," the king went on.
"If it weren't for us -- "
"I know!" The princess smoothed the folds of her skirt and started toward the edge of the page. "I think I'll take a nap, if nobody minds."
Queen Emmeline glided up to her husband and laid her hand on his arm as Sylvie disappeared in the direction of page 6.
She found a comfy spot on the left-hand margin beside the seventh paragraph and rested her head on "grandiloquent," the largest adjective in sight. As her head sank into the stuffing, the earlier thought returned: What if Readers really did have other lives, lives that had nothing to do with her world? The idea went against everything she'd been taught.
The sun shines. Readers read. She nestled down and yawned. Soon her breathing softened as she drifted into a dream about Chapter Four, in which she sets out on her quest to regain the stolen treasure. As always, the dream went pretty much the way the story was written. Following the thieves' trail, she rode her donkey into the forest. In a clearing she came across a great tortoise -- ten feet across -- which local peasant boys had somehow overturned and left to die. Dark birds stared down from the trees. Sylvie tried to help, but the tortoise was too heavy. She used a long pole as a lever and tied a length of rope to her donkey. With her pushing and the donkey tugging, the tortoise finally thumped over onto its feet. It looked at her several long seconds with its great reptilian eyes, then disappeared in the undergrowth.
Sylvie traveled on. In the afternoon heat, she heard a high clicking sound and the beating of wings. Ahead, in a thornbush, a large snowy owl struggled. The more desperately it beat its wings, the deeper the thorns pierced its body. Bright red lines worked their way down the white feathers. Then Sylvie realized (as she always realized at this point in the story) that the bird's eyes were white, too. It was blind!
"Shh," Sylvie said in a soft voice. "Hush, little one."
The owl grew calmer, and Sylvie was able to stroke its back. She held the quivering bird and gently pulled away the thorns. With a cry the owl exploded into the air, circled her once, and flew north.
At last, her petticoats hopelessly dusty, Sylvie arrived at the cliffs overlooking the Mere of Remind. The waters of the Mere were usually calm, but now something was churning up waves close to the shore. An enormous fish of some kind, she thought, trapped by the receding tide. She hurried down to the water.
"There, there, fish," she said, extending her hand over the thrashing waves. "If you will calm down, I will help you." She reached below the surface and felt the scaly back of a great sea creature.
She waded in, stroking the fish all the while. It blended so perfectly with the water, it seemed invisible. "Come," she said. She bumped into the dorsal fin and gently pulled on it, guiding the fish to a place where it could wriggle over a sandbar and escape.
"Now!" she cried. The creature heaved itself up, and Sylvie pushed with all her strength while sand flew everywhere. In that moment, catching the last sunlight, the fish's sand-covered body was briefly visible. "Why, you're as big as a drawing room!" Sylvie gasped. Then it slammed back in the water and was gone.
She watched the flashing waves grow brighter and brighter, till she had to shield her eyes. The distant cliffs were turning transparent. What was happening? Then came the sound of screaming birds, and a low grumbling.
"Booook open! Oooopen!"
Sylvie woke from her dream in a panic. The page was flooded with light. She started running, already late. A face was peering down into the royal chamber, where the king was chewing on the end of his mustache and looking around anxiously.
"Father-I-cannot-marry-Prince-Riggeloff!" Sylvie gasped as she raced out onto the page.
"Not marry Riggeloff?" King Walther beamed, relieved to see her back in place. Then he caught himself and harrumphed. "For heaven's sake, child, he is handsome, rich..."
Sylvie had to lean against the wall to catch her breath. Her hand rested on a suit of armor. "Kind, brave, yes, I..." The armor started to scrape along the wall. "Yes, I..." -- she made a grab for it and missed -- "know!" she cried as the armor, with a stupendous crash, landed on the stone floor. "No! No!"
One of the ladies-in-waiting fainted dead away.
Somewhere someone started giggling.
"He has -- he has," started the king. He cast a worried glance at the large woman lying on the floor.
The giggling grew louder.
"Everything, yes I know," Sylvie said. "So do I."
"And so do I!" her father exclaimed.
"Of course you do!" cried Sylvie. "You're the king!"
"Where am I?" The lady-in-waiting, a round woman in a bulging ball gown, was struggling onto her elbow.
Pingree the Jester hid his face in his pointed hat.
"And you're the princess!" shouted the king to Sylvie. He put his hand to his brow. "What am I saying?"
The laughter grew louder. Sylvie glanced up, just for a second, and saw a huge face in the sky. A girl, she realized, one she hadn't seen before.
"Ah-ha-ha-ha!" the girl boomed out, gripping the sides of the book till the castle shook.
The laughter died away. The new Reader had turned the page and found 4 and 5 stuck together. Sylvie forgot the number one rule of all storybook characters: Never look at the Reader. It was a rule she had broken before, but this time she just stared up at the Reader, a plain-looking girl a bit younger than herself, with short brown curls and a mouth too wide for her face. She was prying the pages apart.
"That Ricky!" the girl cried. Then she closed the book and left the courtiers in darkness.
"Oh!" King Walther sighed in despair.
"Disaster!" the jester groaned, flicking dust from his jingling cap.
"She may come back," said the queen.
Sylvie and her father helped pull the lady-in-waiting to her feet as the backup lights sputtered and blinked on. No one spoke, or even looked at each other. Two disappointments in one day, after years of sitting on an undusted shelf. It was too much!
Copyright © 2001 by Roderick Townley
The Great Good Thing
Sylvie has been a twelve-year-old princess for more than eighty years, ever since the book she lives in was first printed. She's the heroine, and her story is exciting -- but that's the trouble. Her story is always exciting in the same way. Sylvie longs to get away and explore the world outside the confines of her book.
When she breaks the cardinal rule of all storybook characters and looks up at the Reader, Sylvie begins a journey that not even she could have anticipated. And what she accomplishes goes beyond any great good thing she could have imagined...
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 240 pages |
- ISBN 9780689853289 |
- October 2002 |
- Grades 5 - 9
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Reading Group Guide
The Great Good Thing
By Roderick Townley
About the Book
Twelve-year-old Princess Sylvie lives in a storybook that hasn’t been read in years. She’s tired of the same old tale and longs for adventure beyond the boundaries of the book. So when a young girl named Claire begins reading The Great Good Thing, Sylvie makes her move. First, she disobeys the number one rule of storybook characters: Never Look at the Reader. Soon after that, she leaves the confines of the page to explore Claire’s dreams. But when the book is destroyed by fire, Sylvie, her family, and all the characters in the kingdom must take up permanent residence in Claire’s subconscious. There, adventure is assured; but it’s what Sylvie accomplishes on the outside that brings the greatest good, for herself and countless others. Publisher’s Weekly called Townley’s novel “clever and deftly written… as much a romantic paean to reading and writing as it is a good story.” Indeed, Townley’s fantastic journey renders the imagination real.
Please use examples from the text to support your answers.
1.As a storybook character Sylvie stays the same age despite the passage of time. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of staying the same age forever? If you could choose one age at whi see more