by Donna Jo Napoli
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Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

High in the mountains, Zel lives with her mother, who insists they have all they need — for they have each other. Zel's life is peaceful and protected — until a chance encounter changes everything. When she meets a beautiful young prince at the market one day, she is profoundly moved by new emotions. But Zel's mother sees the future unfolding — and she will do the unspeakable to prevent Zel from leaving her..."Will leave readers spellbound."— Publishers Weekly, starred review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141301167
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 11/28/1998
Series: Puffin Novel Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 454,521
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Donna Jo Napoli is the author of Crazy JackThe Magic CircleStones in Water, and many other books. She is the chairperson of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Oh, Mother, the goose is on her nest again." Zel rests her weight on the windowsill and leans out. Her feet dance on tiptoe. The goose stretches her neck forward and smacks the bottom of her bill on the rocky soil. "Goose!" Zel shouts. "Dear goose. You're terribly confused." Zel hears a thunk. She spins around.

    Mother has just put a bowl of apricots on the center of the table. "Forget that goose. Eat well. You'll need your energy."

    "I will?" Zel grabs a fruit from the cool water it floats in. She eats greedily, her teeth sharp as the shells she has collected on their visits to the lake. She sees that Mother wears her good shoes. "Oh, we're going to town today!" She laughs. And now her dancing feet take her around the table, around Mother, impelled by the rare joy of town. Zel sings, "Today today today today."

    Mother catches the tips of Zel's braids and gives a playful tug. Holding tight, she dips her fingers in the water in the bowl and smooths the curls that have sprung free back into place. Then she turns to the shelf and takes down the dark loaf. She saws with a long, strong knife.

    Zel sniffs the air, lifting her nose like the lone chamois she watched one day last month when she climbed high into the Alps. "I love the smell of bread. Sweet, sweet bread."

    "Nourishing bread." Mother puts two pieces on the table.

    Zel takes a bite of bread, then ties on her shoes. She has already tended to the rabbits and hens, so there is nothing to delay her and Mother. "I Wonder if the crier withthe melons will be there." She would love to see the crier's wide chest and hear his rough voice.

    "The first melons might be ripe already." Mother speaks distractedly.

    "Tell me: will he?" Zel chooses a second apricot and rolls it on the table, making a design of its wet trail. She takes hold of her wooden chair by the half-moon hole in its back, pulls it out from under the table, and sits.

    Mother smiles. She closes her eyes. When she opens them, she says, "At least a few melons are ripe. He'll be there."

    "Mother." Zel's eyes hold Mother's with insistence. "I want to be able to close my eyes and know things, like you. But when I close my eyes, all I do is stumble."

    Mother picks up her own hunk of bread. She eats, quick and silent.

    Zel stands with her eyes closed and bumbles her way across the room, through the doorway, purposely bumping into baskets and beds. She opens her eyes and laughs. "Let's go."

    Mother takes a cloth sack off the peg on the wall. She picks up the piece of bread that Zel has left on the table and slips it in Zel's pocket as she walks past and out the door.

    On the side of the next mountain to the east, a herd of long-horned goats skips over stone loosened by spring rains. There is little grass on that mountain, but on Zel's and Mother's meadow the grass is thick as moss. No place on earth is as fine as their alm. Zel skips through the grass, mimicking the goats.

    "Keep clean, Zel. We must be presentable for town."

    "Everyone else will be caked with grime."

    "We aren't everyone else."

    Zel doesn't understand Mother's passion for cleanliness. No one else seems to share it. Still, she returns to the path.

    "Pay homage to the cypresses." Mother nods toward the row of tall trees.

    Zel bows her head. These are the only cypresses Zel has ever seen in all her mountain wanderings. They define the edge of their alm. One winter night the thunder of snow breaking from the mountainside woke Mother and Zel, and by the time they managed to rush from the cottage, the avalanche was over—blocked by the looming trees. Zel was sure the trees had not been there before that night, but Mother said it's easy not to notice trees and plants until you need them. Mother notices every tree everywhere, it seems. Zel has little sense of trees, but gratitude renders her reverent before these cypresses, which seem to grow thicker by the day.

    The goose swings her neck and gazes at them. Beyond the goose, the gray tomcat moves in a silent crouch on the bridge. But there's no cause for alarm: The goose isn't unaware; Zel can see that from the angular movements of the goose's head. Rather, the goose is flustered: Which threat is greater, humans who might eat eggs or a tom who attacks birds? In an instant she's made her decision. She spreads her wings and leaps onto the bridge, charging the cat with raucous honks. The tom turns and runs. Foolish cat to have even thought of attacking. No cat is a match for a goose. Still, Zel admires the cat's saucy spirit.

    Zel points at the nest and counts. "Five. This year she's got five. Last year it was only four."

    The goose now pivots, her wings wide, and charges Zel and Mother. Zel backs away to give the goose wide berth. But Mother pulls Zel behind her and stays on the path. Mother hisses loudly. The goose halts, honks. Mother hisses more fiercely. The goose returns to her nest. Mother crosses the bridge.

    Zel feels betrayed by the goose's attack and even more by the goose's obedience to Mother. She looks over her shoulder and calls, "Silly goose. Who'd want to steal your rocks anyway? No matter how long you sit on them, they'll always be rocks."

    The goose swings her head dumbly.

    Zel is sorry for her words. The goose cannot possibly understand them, but that makes them worse. "What makes her gather rocks, Mother?"

    "I don't know, Zel. Probably her mate was killed and she can't give up the instinct for nesting."

    "Maybe she had a nest of real eggs once. Maybe a fox attacked and killed them all." Zel shudders. She thinks about her own future family. She will have many children. And a husband, of course, not like Mother. He will play with the children, like their billy goat nudges his kids. Zel looks again at the goose, alone on a nest that will never be filled with goslings. "She makes me sad."

    Mother stoops and picks a purple aster. She gently works it into Zel's right braid, so that it sits above her ear. She straightens Zel's smock. "Do you wish the goose wouldn't come back next year?" She swings her empty sack over her shoulder and walks on.

    Zel stretches her arms out behind her, fingers spread like goose feathers in landing. She runs a few paces, then drops her arms. "No, I like her."

    The path feels new. After all, they travel this path only twice a year. Zel looks around. Berry bushes tangle the underbrush, but they are empty. The berries dried up weeks ago. Few fruits are more lovely than summer berries. Zel eyes the brush, her wish fervent and acute. But they wind their way downward, always through empty canes. She says softly, half to herself, "I'm hungry for raspberries."

    "Look carefully." Mother's tone is light, much cooler than the midsummer air.

    A tiny breeze stirs the leaves of an aspen. Its base is surrounded by prickly canes. Zel goes forward and gathers the berries. Just enough to fill both hands. "You knew they were here, didn't you?" She fills her mouth and walks beside Mother again. The berry juice runs down her chin. She wipes it away and licks her fingers. "How could you know these berries would be here, when all the other bushes are dry as dust?"

    Mother opens her mouth as if to speak. But she says nothing. Her eyes are troubled.

    A young hedgehog races from under a bush. At that moment the overhanging branch of a tree breaks and falls on it.

    "No!" Zel runs and rolls the branch away. The little creature is stunned. It blinks at Zel, who coos as she checks its limbs. It scurries off. Zel returns to Mother's side. "I saw fear in its eyes. I wish I could have made it understand I meant no harm. I love animals, Mother. I want to talk to them."

    "You practically do, Zel."

    "In their language, I mean."

    Mother smiles vaguely. She moves along more quickly and lightly now, taking Zel's hand. But Zel is too excited to walk. She drops Mother's hand and skips. She will be with people today all day long.

    Zel loves seeing people. No one ever comes to visit their alm, but still Zel gets to see people often. So far this summer she has spied at least one of the herd boys every day. These are boys who live in the lower hills in winter. But in fair weather they take up residence with the mountain people in their scattered cabins. Once a week each boy takes a turn driving the communal herd across the alms for grazing. Zel has always wished that she and Mother had a cow to contribute to the herd so that the boys would stop by their alto. But Mother prefers goats. And whenever a herd boy crosses their grasses, Mother shoos him away before they can even exchange names.

    But in town Mother can't shoo people away. Zel will get to see everyone, talk with everyone. Oh, town is wonderful.

    The path through the woods comes out on the road. Far ahead two oxen pull a cart piled high with goods under an oilskin. On the road behind, Zel hears voices. She glances at the family that walks beside a donkey loaded almost as high as the oxen cart. The market ahead will be full of donkeys like him, gossiping donkeys. "Hurry, Mother." Zel takes Mother's hand and pulls ahead.

    Finally they pass through the covered bridge over the great river that empties into their lake, footsteps and voices resounding on the stone. When they emerge, the lake shines opaque green down to their left. It is long and flat this morning. Sometimes the lake moves from one end to the other like a thin good-weather quilt in a spring wind. There is a precipice near their home from which Zel can see almost the entire lake. When it moves in that special way, she wonders if the next lake over also moves. Perhaps today that lake is flat, too, inviting the foolish to walk on it.

    The road winds along the side of the hill, passing below the opening of the grottoes. The son of the traveling handyman who patches their steep roof told Zel of those frigid hollows. The boy climbed through holes so narrow, he had to pull himself along on his stomach. He swam in black pools full of lime and vomited afterward. Zel listened and shivered. The boy gave her a cave rock, red from iron. But when Zel showed it to Mother, Mother snatched it and threw it from a cliff. Mother won't abide gifts. Zel painted caves dripping with purple-red mulberry stain for weeks after. When she looked at them, she shivered. And when she shivered, she remembered his question; he asked how she could bear living with no one but Mother way out on their alm. He said, "Don't you mountain people get lonely?"

    Passing the grottoes, Zel drops Mother's hand and hugs herself with both arms to fend off the shivers.

    At last, Zel and Mother arrive in town. They follow the cobblestones, winding through people and animals. The huge clock in the town tower seems to look down on the market square like an open eye. Zel and Mother stop at table after table—here piled high with paprika, bunches of parsley, savory, oregano; here covered with neat pyramids of cheese balls. The zesty smell of the Gruyère Mother buys tickles Zel's nose. They munch sweet rolls of white flour with raisins, citron, and cinnamon, glazed shiny with egg yolk.

    Zel hums. She feels absorbed by the throng of people. She stops a moment, enjoying the sense of warmth and envelopment. But Mother nudges her along.

    And here's the fruit stall they always visit. A girl Zel has talked with before hugs her warmly. A boy who looks to be the girl's brother sneaks strawberries into Zel's hand, the small, wild, exquisitely sweet kind. Mother grabs Zel by the wrist and the berries drop in the dust. How can Mother rush when it's been so long since they last came to town—six long, long months? Zel lags behind, forcing Mother to slow her pace.

    Another vendor insists on slipping a licorice stick into Zel's pocket. Mother feigns ignorance of the act, perhaps because she knows Zel would protest if Mother refused this favorite of treats.

    A third vendor, a woman Mother's age, leans forward. "The season's first grapes." She drops a small bunch of the green fruit in Zel's outstretched hands. Zel has them in her mouth before Mother can say no. But Mother doesn't seem to want to say no now. She presses through the crowds to the edge of the square.

    Zel looks ahead. Her eyes alight on the mare that whinnies in protest as the blacksmith ties the fourth rope holding her in place. Merchants often leave their horses to be shod or to have their hooves filed while they sell their wares. Zel knows this because she and Mother have stood and watched the smith on past visits to town. "Mother, can we go watch?"

    "I have errands to run. Stay here without me while I do them, will you?"

    Zel's chest tightens. She has never been without Mother in town. Yet Zel has seen children walk unattended through the streets. Why, there, in front of the flower merchant, a child much smaller than Zel chooses foxgloves in blue and pink and white. And over there a girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen buys a slab of pork. Zel feels suddenly silly. "Of course, Mother. I'll be fine." And she will. This will be an adventure.

    Mother touches Zel's cheek and a look of pure tenderness fills her eyes. She leaves.

    Zel enters the smithy with a sense of anticipation that makes her almost giddy.

Table of Contents

ZelPart 1. The Gift
Switzerland, mid-1500's

Part 2. Rejection

Part 3. Lonely

Part 4. Obsessed

Part 5. The Kiss

Part 6. Love

Part 7. Scattering

Part 8. Gathering

Customer Reviews

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Zel 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
Libra007 More than 1 year ago
This book gave me nightmares after I read it. It was possibly one of the worst books I've read in my life. I mean, Zel smashing her head with bricks, period blood, them lying naked, description of urination???...Donna Jo Napoli SLAUGHTERED a good story by turning it into this hyper-descriptive, awful book. I had to force myself to drag through this terrible piece of literary manure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Zel' is a fantastic book for everyone, especially the fantasy and fairy tale lovers. It is believable, charming, emotional, romantic, and even suspenseful. It brings a whole new side to a classic and beloved fable, and Donna Jo Napoli's writing style enhances and exhilarates. You will be mesmerized at the detail. Spectacular!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the story Zel was great. I didnt get board the first time I read it.It was so romantic that Count Konrad kept looking for Zel for years. It shows true love conquers all. If you like history and fairytales this is for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked the book but..... Donna's writing style doesn't fit with me so I kinda got bored with it. I like the romance but I think Zel is retarded.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This movie is so achingly HUMAN. I have adored this book since I was 15, and honestly, it's as good as the first time I read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To introduce this book, Zel lives on an isolated swiss alps where her mother insists they have everything, for they have each other. But, Zel is growing and changing, and looks forward to the day when she will have her own house and family. Unfortunately, her mother, imprisoned by her hatred at having no husband of her own, locks Zel in a tower to prevent her marriage to a handsome nobleman. In the book, way up high in the mountains Zel lives with her mother. Zel’s life is peaceful and protected until something happens that changes everything. One day, Zel meets a handsome young prince one day at the market and Zel is moved by her emotions for the young prince. Zel’s mother sees her future unfolding and she will do the unspeakable act preventing Zel from leaving her.  My favorite part in this book is when Zel sends her paper bird out into the woods and Konrad finds it. I enjoyed the strange banter between Zel and Konrad, because Zel thinks she is imagining everything, she gives him the most cryptic and amusing answers. I would recommend this book to any person that likes romance and horror. In conclusion, overall I enjoyed this book and I’m glad that I got the chance to read it and I felt sorry for the princess until I read the story ending.
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Bookworm8PD More than 1 year ago
This imaginative retelling of a classic fairy tale is best described as intriguing. This book is short but extremely interesting and once you pick it up you won't want to put it down.
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Awesomeness1 More than 1 year ago
I did not like this book. The characters were completely unrealistic, and they all were overdramatic. I saw reviewers saying how this novel had plot twists and was exciting and unpredictable. Uh, no. If you know the story of Rapunzel at all, you know the enitre book. I at least expected refreshing insight into the characters, but again was disappointed. It seemed to be okay in the beginning, but the pace and tone of the novel was uneven and the end was incredibly rushed. The first 75 pages takes place in the course of one day, but the last twenty pages covered a span of 3 years. It was just bad and unsatisfying.
mothman More than 1 year ago
Zel written by Donna Jo Napoli is set in the high mountains and countryside of Switzerland in the mid 1500's. Zel is a modern twist on a classic tale. It is told in alternating parts by zel, her mother, and the young noble. A mother who can "see" things and a handsome noble obsessed with her all factor into Zel's world. In this story Zel, a graceful young girl, and her mother live alone high in the mountains on a little farm with a horse, some chickens, and a goose that can't lay eggs. They only go to the market when they need things. Her life is peaceful and protected. Zel thinks she has everything she could ever want on her little farm. That is until one day she meets a prince in a chance encounter. To her mothers dismay she falls in love with him while her mother does everything to desperately keep her daughter at her side. A secret wedding lands Zel locked in a room where she fears she will never see her love again. The confusion of why her mother is so against love leaves Zel searching through her past to find the truth only leaving her to discover nothing is what it has seemed. Zel is a classic love story and fairy tale with a modern twist. It has you turning pages through the entire book. This book is mostly for young teens or preteens.
FairytaleKP More than 1 year ago
I must confess that I adore fairy-tale stories. Fairy-tales bring me to a different world and immerse me in them, but I cannot say that this happened when I read Zel. The story of Rapunzel has to be one of my least favorite fairy-tale stories, but I decided to give this book a try. What I read only made me bored and wonder at how this story was even a retelling or unique in any way. I found the characters dull and not to sound heartless, but I did not even care what happened to the characters. I do not recommend this book to fairy-tales lovers like me, because there are so many other good fairy-tale books to choose from.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago