I’m currently re-writing a junior fiction novel that I had written years ago (and actually finished!). But I decided, after some feedback, that while the story was mostly there, the whole thing pretty much needed a re-work from the beginning. Part of that is making it a bit more mysterious, a bit more magical, a bit more Grimm. As in: steeped in fairy tales. And when I say steeped, imagine a pot of tea where you add more leaves every day. Because that is, in effect, what I’m doing.
I have a decent collection of children’s books. The mix of being a book lover, a hoarder and working in the book trade has led to more children’s books than you might expect to see in the home of a thirty-something man with no children. And a chunk of those, perhaps a quarter, are all fairy tales, classics or folk tales from around the world. I just love collecting them. So much so, they get added to the shelves faster than they can be read. So, to help me along with my New Year’s Resolution, AND to really help me with the re-write of this book, I’ve been reading one fairy-tale every night before then picking up whichever novel I’m reading at the time. It’s been great fun!
About a third of my fairy tale collection were acquired through a silent auction at a community hall second hand book stall (or two separate auctions, to be precise, where I found myself in possession of fifty boxes of second hand children’s books. I kept any that wanted and sold on the rest to make a profit. Win!). Anyway, this means that some are quite old. Some beautiful-old, some just plain dated. And many of them I’ve never got around to reading until now. So I thought I’d share some of my stronger reactions:
Firstly, and most amusingly, there was a picture book edition of Rumpelstiltskin that started out in the usual way, except that the miller’s daughter was given a name, Ruby. It’s nice when the heroine is actually given a name. Then came the page when “the King was in town and he heard one of the miller’s stories.” This, paired with the illustration made me laugh. I mean, really? The King was just out for a stroll, dressed like that, and the townspeople didn’t even stop their gossip to acknowledge him enough for him to eavesdrop? I thought, YEAH! This is going to be a really subversive and hilarious telling.
I was wrong. After the greedy King orders his guards to man-handle Ruby to the palace, locking her in room after room and threatening her with death-by-crocodile unless she performs an illogical/impossible task he overheard as part of town gossip, he asks her to marry him. “Ruby was a bit shocked but, since there was no more talk of crocodiles, she said, ‘Yes.’” Umm, Stockholm syndrome much? We’re not supposed to be upset when the King trips while carrying too much gold and falling to his own death-by-crocodile, but we were supposed to rejoice at their wedding? I know it can be a hard thing to re-tell a fairy tale while keeping the ‘traditional’ or well-known plot points, but that just seemed a bit hard to swallow.
Then I read The Bee-Man of Orn, which I had never read before. I loved Frank R. Stockton’s tale that suggests that when it comes to who you are, you could live your life over, but some things are meant to be. Like, for instance, I take solace that if I were turned into a baby to re-live my life, I’d still end up being a book-obsessed Kid’s Lit Nerd tending my shelves in much the same way that the Bee-Man tends his bees. On top of that, P.J. Lynch’s illustrations are, as always, absolutely beautiful.
A little while back, I read Francesca Lia Block’s The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold. It’s an extremely strong collection of re-imaginings that are just lavishly told. Her word choice and turn of phrase is wonderfully crafted. My favourite from the collection is ‘Glass’ that blooms with hope and the power of storytelling and genuine human connection.
My favourite fairy tale is ‘The Snow Queen’ by Hans Christian Andersen. There’s something about the fact that it is little Gerda who takes it upon herself to go (to tremendous lengths) and save her friend. There are other reasons, but in any event, I love it. So much so, I collect editions of it. Many of which I’ve yet to read. I have read about three in the last week, and I’m learning, in a rather powerful way, stories themselves are not good, it is the telling of them that we connect to. An (extreme) example, is the ‘Now You Can Read’ picture book version of The Snow Queen that I have. To suit its didactic purposes, it has been simplified to the point where nothing makes sense unless you know the whole story already. I’ve also learned that people who don’t know the original story but do know ‘Frozen’, write bizarre reviews on Goodreads. But my feelings about that movie will be left for another time. They deserve an entire post to themselves, but I’m not yet convinced I want to write it.
To go back to the steeping image that I started with, each of these stories that I read, is like another spoonful of tealeaves in the pot. They are influencing me and my writing in more ways than I anticipated. Not only am I becoming increasingly familiar with fairy tale tropes and devices which I can employ, overlay and interweave into the novel I am currently working on, but I am ever clearer on the importance of the way a story is told in order to engage and enchant. This is helped just as much by the poorly written stories I am reading as the masterful.
I feel like ending with a public service announcement. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter if you have children; a picture book before bed, be it a fairy tale or not, is a wonderful way to end the day.