Scientists have been looking at how folk and fairy tales, particularly stories of animals and magic, have been distributed from their place of origin. What they are interested in particularly is the different modes of travel – whether the tales are transmitted by a person moving from where they were and retelling the story in their new place – which is migratory storytelling, or whether the tales are told down a ‘whisper’ chain – one to another, but each person remaining static. The scientists are looking at what genomic data can tell us about the historic spread of culture, but that’s not what caught my eye in their studies. What fascinates me is the content itself.
For me, it’s interesting to see how different versions of fairy tales are told to different children, how different folk tales from different cultures overlap in themes and plot, and how we use fairy tale tropes to tell our own stories, or make our own arguments, especially when we update them. I have found that although children don’t always remember being specifically read fairy tales, there are familiar tropes that have sneaked into the vernacular or familiar strands that they have picked up by osmosis (or from Disney). They know, for example that it’s important to stop partying before the clock strikes midnight, that houses are sturdier built from bricks, that eating another’s porridge is rude, that one shouldn’t generally accept shiny red apples from strangers. So how do we make fairy stories exciting and relevant and different for the next generation -for the ‘instant gratification’ generation?
Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales have been produced in a stunning publication in time for Christmas, with black and white illustrations within by Sarah Gibb, but also with foil on the cover and a ribbon bookmark (my new favourite thing). But it’s the spellbinding way that McKay recreates the fairy tales that is the real draw here. She has renamed her tales, but given the traditional name underneath, so as to help the readership, covering ten stories from Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin to The Swan Brothers, Twelve Dancing Princesses and more well-known stories including Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
But McKay is clever in her storytelling. She understands that her readership may have an inkling of the denouement of the stories, so she finds another way to tell them – be it changing the point of view, or the timeframe through which they are told. For example, The Pied Piper of Hamelin is told from the perspective of the Mayor, who may have a slightly different view from normal on the terrible tragedy of the children being taken away (those noisy, litter-dropping children!). Hansel and Gretel has been renamed ‘What I Did in the Holidays and Why Hansel’s Jacket is So Tight (by Gretel, aged 10)’, and not only tells the story backwards through Gretel’s point of view, but is narrated by the teacher and incorporates much humour and subtle insertion of other fairy stories along the way.
There are newer lessons in here too – with the story of Rapunzel, McKay manages to convey something leaning towards a discussion on freedom and captivity – what it really means to be free and the fears that this can bring. With Snow White, McKay extrapolates our sense of what is considered beautiful, and also whether beauty is held within. By telling some stories from a perspective of the fairy tale characters in old age, looking back, more wisdoms can be brought out with the beauty of hindsight, and sometimes the clever children listening question their grandparents on decisions they made as children – Snow White as a grandmother is particularly effective – also bringing to the discussion the difference between telling a story and making up a story, and things purporting to be truths.
These stories will appeal because they sound modern, despite the ancient stories buried inside, and because they right some ancient wrongs – McKay clearly feels sorry for Rumpelstiltskin, and gives him some relief. This is a wonderful collection of fairy tales retold, with bite and pathos and humour. You can buy a copy here.
If you’re looking for picture books that retell the stories, David Roberts and Lynn Roberts-Maloney have published four fairy tales in ‘retro’ style. Contradictory though that sentence may seem – for these fairy tales have existed for hundreds of years, and yet by ‘retroing’ them, the authors have moved them into different timezones. Sleeping Beauty is set in the 1950s, Little Red in the late eighteenth century, Cinderella in the roaring ‘20s and Rapunzel in the 1970’s.
Updating the fairy tales not only means that the authors can inject them with our own sensibilities, but also showcase thoughts about our own history by setting them in a specific past era. In 1950’s Sleeping Beauty, it is the needle of a record player of course, not a spinning wheel that sends protagonist Annabel to sleep. But more than that, Roberts beautifully highlights the architecture and comforts of the time – the burgeoning building works post-war, the fashions and hairstyles, and before Annabel (Sleeping Beauty) goes to sleep, she is shown to be an up-and-coming wise young lady, complete with reading a book, harbouring a fascination with space travel and robots, her discoveries (Elvis) indicative of the 1950s.
This sleeping teen sleeps for a 1,000 years and wakes to find another strong female protagonist exploring her 1950s house as if it were a museum. The robot poster on the wall is an extra special touch in a book that speaks to discovery and learning, science and science fiction. A unique way of crushing stereotypes and exploring lasting fairy tales.You can buy it here.
More subversion in This is Not a Fairy Tale by Will Mabbit, illustrated by Fred Blunt. This sequel to This is Not a Bedtime Story returns Sophie and her Dad as he attempts to read Sophie a typical fairy story from his book (princess in tower etc), but Sophie interrupts, and then changes the story to suit her. This story within a story picture book pokes fun at traditional gendered stereotyping in fairy stories; the princess using a combine harvester and then a transformer to reach the tower in which the prince is sleeping.
Not only is there role reversal, but because Sophie, her Dad and granddad are all pictured reading the story, there is the humdrum domesticity and mayhem outside the story too – with Sophie and her relatives’ speech in bubbles. It’s a brilliantly colourful book, with illustrations bordering on comic book style, with plenty of humour abounding. There’s more nuance in this metafiction, as the author alludes to where Sophie is getting her inspiration for her retelling, but it’s not all worthy – there are plenty of funny noises and bottom jokes too. You can buy it here.
Fairy Tale Pets by Tracey Corderoy and Jorge Martin pulls characters out of fairy tales and puts them in another story altogether. In this case, Bob and his pet dog Rex decide to open a pet-sitting service to make some money. But all the creatures left with them are from fairy tales – Baby Bear, billy goats gruff, and finally the three pigs’ pet…puppy. Of course, mayhem ensues, and Bob has to turn to making his money some other way. The book relies upon the reader having knowledge of the key fairy tales in order to understand the jokes, but it’s a fun way to show how stories can be manipulated, pulled apart and pieced back together, especially for young readers. The illustrations are large and impactful, with liberal use of colour in quite wacky chaotic scenes. Well worth a look.You can buy it here.