Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

Into the Woods

by Lyn Gardner; ill. by Mini Grey

Random House, 2007

488 pages

I’ve written before about how much I love a good fairy tale reboot–and, more recently, about how interesting antiheroes can be. Into the Woods is a book that combines both, to inspiring effect.

Here’s the story: Storm Eden lives with her mother Zella, father Reggie, and sister Aurora on the family’s country estate. With Reggie constantly off on “explorations” and Zella too lazy to lift a finger, the family has burned through its substantial fortune, and Storm and Aurora are left trying to hold things together.

Well, Aurora is, anyway. She’s the dutiful older sister, a housekeeping whiz with wicked baking skillz. Storm, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about those things. She feels hurt by their parents’ neglect, hounded by Aurora’s attempts to homeschool her, and would rather spend her time making fireworks or exploring the forbidden woods outside their estate.

Then their mother dies giving birth to a third sister, Any, and their father deserts out of grief. On her deathbed, Zella gives Storm a battered tin pipe, cautioning her against using it except at great need. Storm thinks nothing of it (Zella always was a bit of a drama queen) until the local villain, Dr. DeWilde, shows up and tries to steal it.

The girls successfully escape, but only for a time. DeWilde eventually manages to kidnap Any, and Aurora and Storm set off on a perilous quest to rescue their baby sister.

Of course, one of my favorite things about this book are the fairy tale references. Gardner is incredibly witty with her reboots and revisions: Aurora (i.e., Sleeping Beauty) has a phobia of needles and uses it to great effect at the book’s final climax, the child-eating ogress (from “Rapunzel”) is really a sassy old lady who wants the townspeople to leave her alone, and Storm’s pipe turns out to do much more than lure children to their doom.

The plot is incredible, too. Gardner manages to produce a very long book that doesn’t lose focus or intensity for a moment. And she has the guts to opt for the hard ending, one that’s processed over two climaxes and 100-plus pages. I can imagine a neater way to do it, but only at the expense of character and story integrity .

As for inspiration . . . How about not one, but five, strong heroines? Take Aurora and Any for starters. Aurora begins rather weakly but learns to master fear and is a great encourager and planner, and Any is whip-smart, incredibly loyal, and fiercely principled. Then there’s Mother Collops, the independent, sassy old woman who teaches Storm what it really means to think for herself. And there’s Netta Truelove, the girls’ behind-the-scenes guide and the only townsperson to defy DeWilde to his face.

Now for Storm. She’s the book’s pitch-perfect antiheroine, self-righteous, irresponsible, and prone to unjustified venomous outbursts. I had to grow to like her over the course of the book, and she didn’t really gel with me until the final hundred pages. But thanks to her deep love for Any and her incredible courage, I found myself rooting for her more and more as the story progressed.

There’s just something awesome about a deeply flawed character who grows (but without become perfect) and accomplishes something of tremendous importance. I think the myth of perfection is one of the greatest challenges facing women and girls today. Airbrushed images of apparently flawless women are everywhere. Add the carefully curated lives we present to each other on places like Facebook and Pinterest, not to mention all the “aspirational” books and articles telling us how we could do things better, and we have the perfect recipe for paralysis, self-loathing, and assumed incompetence.

Storm is the perfect counterpoint to the perfection myth. She’s the kind of character who helps young girls lay a solid foundation of “It’s OK not to be perfect” and “I can do it” before they encounter the perfection myth full-force. Turn your weaknesses into strengths, stir them up with healthy dashes of love and courage, and you can make things happen. That’s a much better recipe for girls to savor.

For the Eden girls’ further adventures, read Out of the Woods (2010).

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente; ill. Ana Juan

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

247 pages

Women and girls are survivors.

Throughout history, across the world, we’ve been systematically oppressed, brutalized, and marginalized–yet here we are. We still make up the majority of the world’s population. In many nations, we also make up the majority of university students, the majority of lawyers- and doctors-to-be, the majority of entrepreneurs.

We  still labor under a number of disadvantages–some official, some not–even in nations where freedom and equality are founding principles. But more often than not, we find ways to make our own success. If opportunity so much as stands outside the door, we yank on the handle and pull it inside.

There are, of course, numerous inspirational stories of real women getting the better of adversity and oppression. Ghettoized American moms who won’t accept failing schools for their children. Afghan teenagers who stand up to the Taliban. Ethiopian women who form coffee-growing collectives to feed their families.

But sometimes a story of survival is just as powerful when told through fiction, and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is that kind of story.

It has the boldness and realization of His Dark Materials, the whirling action of Lord of the Rings, and the ethereal language and imagery of The Tale of Despereaux. It’s an odd, sometimes jarring, amalgam, but it’s also compelling and very, very effective.

The novel’s heroine is 12-year-old September, a WWII-era Nebraska girl who has been left to fend mostly for herself as her father and mother both devote themselves to the war effort. Dad is an intelligence officer in combat overseas; Mom is a Rosie the Riveter. September, meanwhile, washes teacups and yearns for an adventure of her own.

When the Green Wind comes to whisk her away on the Leopard of Little Breezes, she leaves literally without a backward glance. What she doesn’t realize is that her adventure in Fairyland is not going to be the stuff of fairy tales.

Or at least, not fairy tales of the Peter Pan or Cinderella variety. Think Hans Christian Andersen instead.

As she travels through Fairyland, September encounters a variety of creatures and people. Two, a wyvern/library named A-Through-L and a marid named Saturday, become her traveling companions and allies.

They start off attempting to reclaim a witch’s spoon from The Marquess, Fairyland’s tyrannical little-girl ruler, and end up on a mission both for and against The Marquess herself.

Over the course of the book, September both witnesses and suffers brutality, deception, mutilation, and violent oppression. She also encounters deep love, loyalty, selflessness, and kindness. She pushes herself beyond limits she didn’t realize she possessed, learns lessons she didn’t know could be read, and makes sacrifices she wasn’t aware were possible.

She doesn’t escape unscathed or even whole–at least, not whole as she would have defined it pre-Fairyland. Rather, she finds herself, in her own words, “well and whole” in new fashion: she’s lost something of herself but gained in new directions.

The narrator says, quite simply, that she has begun to grow a heart.

And that, really, is what makes survival inspiring. Those who have experienced trying or traumatic circumstances and escape “well and whole” often do so because the experience has grown their hearts. Through their own suffering, they’ve learned to have compassion on others. Or they’ve gained a passion to fight back against what hurt them–not just for their own sake, but for others’ too.

This is the kind of spirit that leads victims of acid attacks to show their faces to the international press, drives cancer survivors to launch massive fundraisers, or guides the loved ones of murder and rape victims to press for more action and more laws.

These people can’t undo their own trauma, but they are determined that it won’t destroy their lives and that fewer people will suffer.

I want my daughter to read that message: that, even if she encounters the most heinous suffering, she can survive. And not just to heal, but to help.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first in a series whose length is yet to be determined. Valente released the second book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, in October 2012.

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The Gingerbread Girl

by Lisa Campbell Ernst

Dutton Children’s books, 2006

32 pages

Retellings of classic nursery stories are as plentiful (and sometimes as grating) as the sand on the seashore, but every now and then an author manages to turn out a clever, engaging version of a familiar tale.

My favorites tend to be the reboots, spinoffs, or parodies of the classics: Sczieska and Smith’s Fairly Stupid Tales, the Hales’ Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, Marshall and Sendak’s Swine Lake—and now Lisa Campbell Ernst’s The Gingerbread Girl.

This picture book isn’t just a rewrite with a girl subbed in for the rather dim-witted gingerbread boy. Instead, Ernst has crafted a very funny little sequel, where she imagines what might happen if the old couple of the original tale were to bake again.

This time, they decide to make a gingerbread girl—because, as the little old man presumes, “a sweet little girl wouldn’t run away!” What they end up with, however, is a sassy little cookie with an appetite for revenge. The moment the oven door creaks open, she’s off down the road to teach that gluttonous swimming fox a lesson.

Like her older brother, she evades a host of hungry pursuers and then hops on the fox’s back to cross the river. Unlike her brother, however, she’s only playing dumb. Once they’re too far into the river for the fox to escape, she captures him, tames him, and spends the rest of her happy days riding him around the countryside.

Aside from Ernst’s hyper-energetic illustrations, I love this book for the confidence and craftiness the Gingerbread Girl possesses. Right from the start, she settles on her purpose and doesn’t let anyone deter her. She knows she’s smart, knows she’s fabulous, and knows she can accomplish her goal if she just stays focused and brave.

Even better, she doesn’t let her predecessor’s mistakes define or deter her. And I think that’s where the inspiration is. She realizes that she’s her own person, with her own choices to make and her own narrative to write.

I want my daughter to grow up with that understanding: the knowledge that other people’s failings don’t have to limit her. Whatever choices her friends or even family members are making—have made in the past—she can stand strong, stick to her purpose, and accomplish her goals.

For the Gingerbread Girl, that means teaching the fox to treat others with kindness and respect. For a real-life little girl, it can mean mastering a skill like music or art, making the top soccer team, or leading a neighborhood service project. Or even growing up to change the world.

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