Jen Harrison | The Children’s Book Review | May 18, 2016
Worrisome Words: Fairy Tales and Identity
“Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again” (Lewis, 1950, p. ?). So says one of my favorite literary characters of all time, in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; looking at the enthusiasm with which the fairy tale has expanded into modern popular culture, I often wonder what Lewis would think if he could see just how true his words have become. Fairy tales have become one of the most popular tropes for the exploration of identity in popular culture, and more than anything else they have become an almost clichéd medium for the reimagining of female roles and identities. Recent years have seen TV series such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and films such as The Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Maleficent, and Beauty and the Beast captivating audiences with images of strong and sexually-independent heroines and villainesses. In books, this trend is even more prevalent, and readers have come to expect that the traditional conventions of the genre will be turned on their head to turn the usual victim of the big bad wolf or the wicked stepmother into a strong, resilient warrior with a kick-ass mentality. Some of these adaptations are subtle; some are less so. Here are three of my favorites, both new and old.
Written by Sally Gardner
I, Coriander is set in Pre-Restoration and Restoration England, and tells the story of a young girl learning to cope with the death of her mother, the loss of her father, and the abuse of her abusive stepmother and her crooked priest-lover. Coriander witnesses her mother’s death from disease, her father’s arrest for treason at a time when the punishment was still to be hung, drawn and quartered, the physical and mental abuse of her step-sister, and the indifference and helplessness of friends, neighbors, and servants to help or care for her. It is a timeless story of resilience, strength, and self-reliance, but it is also a fairy tale in which a pair of magic silver shoes lead the way to another world, a threatening crocodile can steal a name, and a fairy prince can find himself changed into a fox and hunted to his death. Through it all, Coriander proves that sometimes it is not the princess who needs rescuing, but the prince, and that all a girl needs to go her own way is the courage to believe in who she is.
Ages 10+ | Publisher: Puffin Books | 2007 (Reprint) | ISBN-13: 978-0142407639
Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Written by Hannah West
The Kingdom of Nissera is no stranger to magic, but for many centuries there have been very few powerful magicians around. In fact, there have been only two. Ever since the catastrophic civil war in which the Elicromancers wiped themselves out, the four kingdoms have been largely safe from magical interference. In one kingdom, the princess has been trapped in an enchanted sleep deep inside a thorn-enclosed castle; in another, the princess is forced to live as a downtrodden servant, slaving for her stepmother and stepsisters. However, when the orphaned kitchen maid Bristal is chosen by magical forces to be the third elicromancer of the realm, she finds herself caught in the middle of a violent war between her two companions, each of whom has a radically different view of the role elicromancers should play in the fate of humanity. All around Bristal are powerful kings and princes, warriors, and magicians, all vying for the power to save the kingdom, win the princess, and live happily ever after. Sometimes, however, it takes a women to see that what is needed is not power, but diplomacy.
Ages 12+ | Publisher: Holiday House | 2016 | ISBN-13: 978-0823436514
Written by S Jae-Jones
Liesl, the young innkeeper’s daughter, dreams of nothing more than becoming a famous composer. However, the family is poor, her siblings are hungry, and there is little hope that she will ever be able to do anything more than take over the family business. That all changes, however, when the Goblin King abducts her younger sister, carrying her off to the underworld as his bride. Determined to do her duty to her family, Liesl takes her sister’s place, and to her delight finds freedom in her new marriage to live a life devoted to music. Even more surprisingly, she finds herself falling in love. A beautiful exploration of love, free-will, and identity, S Jae-Jones rewrites the traditional notion of female sacrifice and presents an empowering picture of female roles and relationships.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin’s Griffin | 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-1250079213
Exploring Identity with 3 Fairy Tales for Older Readers is article two in the Worrisome Words column by Dr. Jen Harrison. For more articles like this one, follow along with our reviews and articles tagged with Worrisome Words, Books About Identity, Fairy Tales, and Fractured Fairy Tales.
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