The Retell

Just to let you know in case you can come, I’ll be signing books at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival at Mohawk Day Camp in White Plains, New York, on May 5th. I’ll be there from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and I’ll have time to chat. I’d love to see you!

On January 10, 2019, Emily F. wrote, I’ve been working on a retelling of the Mulan legend. What I’ve been wondering is, how far can you take a story from its origins before it stops being a retelling? For example, would you consider it to be a retelling of Mulan if it’s not set in China? I was reading book reviews of another Mulan story, and the reviewers seemed generally unhappy with the fact that the author took the story out of China. And that’s only one example of a way I’m deviating from the original legend…

Any thoughts on what makes for a good retelling?

Christie V Powell wrote back, Do you feel the need to label it as a retelling? If not, you can just write the story you want to write, and if people notice the similarity, it’ll be a fun bonus for them. Most retellings that I’ve seen don’t label themselves as such. Disney added a tiny “inspired by The Snow Queen” in the credits of “Frozen,” because the story was so different.

One of my favorite books when I was little (I have no idea what the title was) was a retelling of The Arabian Nights in a Native American setting, incorporating actual or made-up Native American folk tales. This was about sixty years ago. I suspect the tales weren’t true to the culture, but I don’t know. I hope they weren’t actually offensive. Anyway, in my ignorance, I loved it. If a thousand reviewers had been miffed about the transplant from one society to another, I wouldn’t have cared. And I liked very much that I had the inside dope that this was a transformed Arabian Nights. I enjoyed making the connection.

I agree with Christie V Powell that you don’t have to call your creative work a retelling. And, going the other way, I think, no matter how far you stray, you can call it such if you want to. Ella Enchanted and some of my retellings in The Princess Tales are pretty faithful to classic versions. But in other of my fairy-tale based books, like A Tale of Two Castles and Ogre Enchanted, the connection is pretty tenuous. I don’t think I did in A Tale of Two Castles, but in Ogre Enchanted, I cite the source, the fairy tale, “The False Prince and the True, on the copyright page. And I do the same in all the Princess Tales. My hope is that kids who see the citation will be moved to read the originals. Then they can have two pleasurable reading experiences. They can notice the differences between the stories and ponder why I made the changes I did.

Is a story still “Beauty and the Beast” if the beast is a wasp, and when he’s transformed he turns into a sheep with golden fleece? If we think it is–if the fairy tale inspired us–and we want to claim a connection, no one has the right to say we can’t.

Critics’ opinions vary about everything. I would advise that we not dwell on negative judgments of another author’s work and certainly not apply them to our own. Even this particular reviewer might have a different opinion about our story. Some critics might even like the variety that came with the change of location and whatever else.

Really, when we write, we have to please only ourselves. Later, after we’ve revised more than once, we may have to please an editor and then a copy editor. No one else. Critics are on their own. Even readers are.

But the wonderful thing is that if we please ourselves, if our story is true to our own ideas, then readers, and sometimes critics, will find the truth in it and be pleased, too.

Having said all this, however, I wouldn’t make Mulan the title of my story. In the text, I might not even mention the name Mulan except on the copyright page or in an afterword, because the mention might send the reader out of the story.

As for what makes a good retelling, hmm…

I love it when I find a new way in my own work to look at a fairy tale and when another author shows me a new way. Donna Jo Napoli, for example, always does this. Her novel, The Magic Circle, tells the tragic-but-triumphant story of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” and her Zel, among other things, explains the witch in “Rapunzel.” Beast is “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s POV (as is my Ogre Enchanted, sort of, but in an entirely different way). My favorite of her books that I’ve read is the lighthearted and endearing Prince of the Pond, a retelling of “The Frog Prince.”

I also love a straight retelling that honors the original, like Robin McKinley’s Beauty, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” which set me to writing Ella Enchanted. Beauty tells its story in beautiful language. The atmosphere enfolds me, and she treats her characters with great sympathy. Also, another important feature in a retelling: Robin McKinley brings the world to life.

I appreciate when an author finds a surprising way into a story, as Susan Fletcher does in Shadow Spinner, in which she tackles the story that frames the tales in The Arabian Nights. I had wanted to do the same, but I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to make the sultan sympathetic, because he kills a series of young women, but Susan Fletcher does it by stepping back–her MC is a young girl with a limp, who hunts for stories when Shahrazad runs out.

And I’m delighted when a retelling deals with the wrongness in a tale. I can’t find it online, and I don’t own it, but a picture book exists that reveals that the real hero of “Rumpelstiltskin” is the eponymous dwarf. He saves the miller’s daughter’s life three times, and he makes sure, I think, that she discovers his name. Recognition has been a long time coming!

There are other fairy tales out there that need attention! Greek myths, too! Here are three prompts based on them:

∙ Explain the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin.” Write a scene that shows why he boasts to the king that his daughter can turn straw into gold. Go on to explain why the king makes death the punishment if she fails. If you like, make him sympathetic–a tall order, in my opinion. Write another scene in which the miller’s daughter does more than wring her hands, in which she actually accomplishes something.

∙ Before you read Donna Jo Napoli’s version, write the backstory of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”

∙ Retell “Sleeping Beauty,” but put it in the modern world, no more than three miles from where you live.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fairy tale fad

First off, I got an email this week from The Alliance for Independent Authors saying that “you have been nominated to receive a ‘Top Website for Self-Publishers Award’ by our members.” This stamp of approval goes to blogs or websites, and in this case I have to assume that the recognition belongs to the blog (which is part of my website). And lots of the credit goes to you, faithful readers, for your insightful comments and important questions. Kudos all around!

On December 22, 2012, Tiki Armsford wrote, I was just noticing earlier how books and movies based on fairy tales are starting to become more and more popular (something that’s incredibly joyful for me, since I love fairy tales with a passion) and I was just wondering what your take on this is? Why you think they’re rising in popularity, and what are some tips you could give to someone who’s considering adapting a fairytale?

I’m ashamed to say I’ve read few of these new books and have seen none of the movies or tv series, but I have a few ideas.

Fairy tales deal in universals: love, jealousy, rage, fear, death, beauty, acceptance, good, evil, and probably more. They provide instant entry into these deep topics. Take “Snow White,” which may beat out all the competition with seven out of nine: love (Snow White’s mother, the dwarves, the prince), jealousy (the queen), rage (ditto), death (Snow White), beauty (ditto), good (ditto, the hunter, the dwarves, the prince), evil (the queen).

Universals appeal, obviously, because everybody relates.

In “Snow White,” we’re glad when the evil queen dances in those red hot slippers because she represents parts of us (of me, certainly) – the rage and jealousy – that we’d like to kill off (even though we can’t entirely). We go back to the tale because those disowned parts keep cropping back up in us.

In “The Princess and the Pea,” to pick another example, the MCs virtues come through despite her unpromising appearance – soaked through, hair plastered to her scalp, nose probably running. We get confirmation from her for every time we’ve been misunderstood and underestimated.

Coming at it from a more commercial direction, I think film makers and tv series makers (not so much book writers, in my opinion) look for the familiar to help them find the enormous audiences they need. Many kids today don’t read the original tales, the Brothers Grimm or the Perrault versions, but they read picture book adaptations (or sit cozily in a lap while the story is read) or they see a Disney recreation. The stories are in our bones. This is a leg up for those who survive only if lots and lots of people watch. I don’t mean a criticism; if the stories are well told, I’m happy.

And then there’s magic. If I were an animator, I’d bet magic would be my favorite thing, a license to go wild. And even in live action, I suspect the special effects possibilities are vast and irresistible. And audiences love the wonder.

I do, too. I love fooling around with magic. My editor was disappointed that there wasn’t more in Beloved Elodie, which has become Stolen Magic. So I worked in a few things, and boy, did I have fun! And I felt the story perk up.

The most helpful aspect of fairy tales for me, probably the reason I go back and back to them, is that they provide a rough story framework. Plot may be more important to me than any other story element, but I struggle with it. A fairy tale structure helps me make the plot work.

Let’s look at “The Princess and the Pea” again, which became my The Princess Test in my Princess Tales. The original tale is simple, only a few pages. I can tell it even more briefly: A king and queen want their son to marry a true princess, so they devise a test: the young lady will spend a night of luxury atop twenty mattresses, and underneath the bottom one lies a pea. If that tiny pea disturbs her sleep, she is a true princess and deserves the hand of their son.

There. Two sentences.

But look what’s locked up inside those few words. What sort of character could possibly feel the pea? What made the king and queen come up with such a test? What does the prince think of it? What’s going on with all the princesses who show up for the trial? Isn’t it humiliating?

I came up with one solution, but there are many ways to go, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’m getting really curious about the damsels who failed the test. Where did they go next? Did they have a kingdom to go back to? Are they really not princesses because they failed?

As for tips, I look for lapses in logic. I haven’t attempted “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a fairy tale I love, because it’s perfect, in my opinion. The plot makes sense, and the characters behave reasonably within the context of the story. In many of the stories I fool with, the damsel is passive, and my job is to give her gumption. But here, the slave girl Morgiana takes action and saves the day.

If the story is kind of a mess, I’m in my element. I pointed out the absurdities of “The Princess and the Pea,” but there are other absurd stories. And they’ll strike you differently from the way they appear to me. Love in fairy tales is a target for me. It happens too fast and for the wrong reasons: beauty, handsomeness, rank. Even goodness can be lame. I like a little idiosyncracy mixed in with pure goodness. So those are the places where I get to work.

If you love a story but you’re also mad at it, that can get you going. For instance, my picture book Betsy Who Cried Wolf grew out of my irritation with the grownups in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” for abandoning the boy when he clearly isn’t old enough for the responsibility he’s been given.

There are some fairy tales that I haven’t figured out how to approach: “Rapunzel,” “Aladdin,” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” They interest me, so who knows? Maybe I’ll figure it out. Or you will. Fairy tales are free for all of us to play with.

Here are two prompts:

• Try your hand at “Aladdin.” What strikes you as illogical? What can you make of it? Write the first scene, including the sort of detail and realism that suits a novel, moment by moment. Write the scene when Aladdin rubs the lamp.

• Think of the bare bones of a fairy tale: damsel or lad in distressed circumstances, some magical element, possibly a fairy, probably a prince or princess, possibly an evil character or several, who may have magic on his side. Put them together to create your own fairy tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Why fairy tales?

On May 16, 2010, lilyofseafoam wrote, I suppose this is a question of meaning…so I will post it here because I’m not sure where to send questions.

    I am working on an undergraduate project on fairy tales involving normative social control, Humanism, and some other aspects that I’ve yet to find a name for. I read your Princess Tales and fell in love with the humanity of all of your characters, and I wondered why you chose to re-tell old tales. Is there any meaning to your experience or any message you are trying to send children through them? (I guess the real question is “Why fairy tales?”)

I suspect this answer is much too late for your project.  Sorry!

Normative isn’t a word I often use, so I looked it up on www.Dictionary.com and read this:

1.    of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.

2.    tending or attempting to establish such a norm, esp. by the prescription of rules: normative grammar.

3.    reflecting the assumption of such a norm or favoring its establishment: a normative attitude.

These seem like two definitions rather than three: reflecting norms – standards, morals – that exist, and setting up new ones.  I’d guess that when fairy tales were first told and when they were originally collected and written down, part of their purpose was to pass on community values to children.  I’m thinking of folk fairy tales, the kind that the Brothers Grimm put in their books, not original fairy tales like the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

It was reasonable then and still is to warn children about wolves in whatever form they may take and to let them know the possible serious consequences of lying.  Probably reasonable to laud courageous boys and docile girls during times when women had few options; if one’s lot is constricted and rebellion is doomed, an accepting attitude may be the only route to happiness.

I looked up humanism too and found this definition among others: “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”  Some fairy tales are religious, but most aren’t.  They’re generally about coping in this world with the help of fairies, genies, seven-league boots, and other magical paraphernalia.

Last winter I was invited to be the guest speaker at a tea at Yale.  Before I spoke, the young woman who invited me said that most of her classmates hadn’t read the classic fairy tales in their original versions.  Instead, the stories were known through Disney and other modern interpreters, like me.  Many parents are keeping their children away from the grimness of Grimm.  This could mean that norms have changed or that the ways the old norms were transmitted have changed, as we now have movies and television.  Parents may no longer want to scare their children witless in order to teach them to obey (“Little Red Riding Hood”) or to be truthful (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) or not to lose themselves in rage and jealousy (“Snow White”).

As a child I read jillions of fairy tales.  They didn’t scare me.  The most horrific tale, in my opinion, “Hansel and Gretel” because the parents abandon their children, didn’t trouble me.  I was just glad the witch got her comeuppance and that Gretel was clever enough to give it to her.  But I did soak up at least some of the fairy tale messages.  I wanted to be blond and tall and have a handsome prince fall wildly in love with me on sight alone.  If I was blond and tall and gorgeous and he loved me, then I would never say anything awkward, my blouse would never come halfway out of my skirt, I wouldn’t get hives on my face; I would never be ordinary or imperfect again.

I’m glad my parents didn’t keep the fairy tales from me.  My imagination is richer for them.  And they connected me to the fundamental struggles we all face.

Then I grew up and didn’t look at fairy tales again until I started writing at the age of thirty-nine.  But when I did start, my imagination zipped right back there, to revising fairy tales and making up my own.  The first fairy tale I fooled around with eventually turned into the first of The Princess Tales, The Fairy’s Mistake, which is based on “Toads and Diamonds.”  If you remember the story, there’s a pretty and sweet sister who has jewels and flowers coming out of her mouth and a mean and ugly sister who has snakes and toads exiting between her lips.  Naturally, the prince falls in love with the pretty and sweet one and decides that the falling jewels can be her dowry.  They marry and live happily ever after.  And the mean, ugly sister goes into the forest and dies of mean ugliness.  When I thought about it, I realized the prince would really fall in love with the jewels rather than a girl he just met, and the terrible sister could make the creepy crawlies work for her.

In that book I was writing about three character types we experience in real life: people who take advantage of others (the prince), people who have to learn how to stand up for themselves (the sweet sister), and people who know what they want and go after it in a direct way (my favorite, the mean sister).  There’s also the bumbling fairy who tries to help, who stands for ineffective do-gooders.

Not that I thought of any of this while I was writing; I just got it right now.

If the idea had occurred to me, I could have developed modern characters who exemplify these traits.  I like contemporary stories.  So why not frame this kind of situation in a twenty-first century way?  My novel, The Wish, is set in New York City in recent times.  There is a fantasy element, but the action focuses on eighth graders in an invented middle school.

Writing The Wish was hard!  I don’t feel I know popular culture.  I rarely go to the movies and haven’t listened to many current musicians.  Weirdly, I have to do more research for a contemporary novel than for a fantasy one.  Still, I might write a sequel to The Wish someday.  I’m proud of it, and I left openings for a follow-up.

But I have other reasons for writing fantasy in addition to laziness.  Exaggerated gestures and unrestrained feeling work in fairy tales.  The jewels and flowers and the toads and snakes dramatically represent the natures of the two sisters in “Toads and Diamonds.”  In “Snow White” the queen expresses her fury and jealousy and desperation with a poisoned comb, a deadly corset, and a poisoned apple.  That kind of grandness is hard to achieve in a modern setting without slipping back into fantasy.

In fairy tales big ideas can be worked out on a big stage.  And there’s clarity.  Even though I don’t think about themes when I write, they’re still there.  Of course, my meanings aren’t the same as in the original tales, and they’re more complex, I hope.  I never extol beauty for its own sake or submissiveness and certainly not obedience.  Often I let the villain off the hook, according to some.  The meanings are generally aimed at me.  For example, I’m a worrier and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is about finding courage.  Other people worry too, so the story reaches them as well.

And then there’s the fun factor.  I loved writing how it felt when a snake exited from the evil sister’s mouth.  Or how it was to turn to stone in Fairest.

Here are some prompts:

•    Think of what the characters in a fairy tale might represent.  For example, take “Rapunzel.”  This is only one interpretation, but maybe the witch stands for despotism, the maiden in the tower for despotism’s victim, the prince for an outside liberator.  Can you think of other possibilities for this tale, like maybe the maiden represents fear?  Pick a different fairy tale and think of what the characters represent.  Write down more than one interpretation.  If you feel like it, pick another tale.

•    Now take the fairy tale and the archetypes you’ve identified and put them in a contemporary story.  Write a scene or the whole story.  Notice how the change affects the story.

•    Going the other way, take a contemporary story you’ve written or a novel or movie or TV show by someone else and recast it as a fairy tale.  Write a scene or the whole thing.  Notice how it changes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Spinning Fairy Tales

Before I start, thanks to everybody who came to a tour event.  I was so happy to meet you!

On April 4, 2010, Guinevere Amoureaux wrote, I have a problem with revamping fairy tales.  I always ask myself “why” and “how come” but I never find anything.  Then, when I read a retold fairy tale, I say, “Oh yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?”  And then, when the book THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” came out and I saw it at the library, I nearly boiled over. All day I was saying to myself, “Why didn’t I think about that?” I could have JUST asked, “WHY did the princesses dance every night?” Could you give me a bit of advice on this topic?
I’ve been fascinated by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” too.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre I was really trying to tell the tale of the twelve, but I couldn’t get it.  After I read your question, I looked The Thirteenth Princess up online, although I confess I haven’t read it.  When the review said that there were twelve princesses because the king kept trying for a son, my reaction was exactly the same as yours: Why didn’t I think of that?

Let me go through my process with this story as an example.  Here’s the tale, lifted (legally) from this URL at Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Dancing_Princesses:

Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.

The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.

An old soldier returned from war came to the king’s call after several princes had failed in the endeavor to discover the princesses’ secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.

The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.

The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a twig of each as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.

The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king’s heir.
The version I know ends intriguingly by saying that a day was added to the princes’ enchantment for every night they danced with the princesses.

There are oodles of mysteries in this tale in addition to the puzzle about the quantity of princesses.  When I read it or any fairy tale, I question everything.  That’s what I’d like you to do right now.  Write a list of questions or mysteries, aspects of this story that seem unresolved.  Try to come up with at least eight.  My questions are below, but don’t look.  STOP READING AND WRITE.

I thought of continuing in a separate post, but that seemed untrusting.  Here are my questions:

1.    Why do the princesses share a bedroom in an enormous castle?

2.    Why is the king locking them in at night?

3.    Why aren’t evening entertainments held right there at the castle?

4.    If he cares so much about the dancing slippers, why doesn’t the king deprive his daughters of them at night and let them walk barefoot to the privy?

5.    Why does he kill the unsuccessful suitors?

6.    Why three days and nights for the trial rather than one or twenty-five or any other number?

7.    Generally, what’s up with this crazy king?

8.    Why does the old woman help the soldier?

9.    Who is she?

10.    What is she doing with a cloak of invisibility?

11.    Why are the princesses willing to let young men die rather than reveal the secret of their dancing slippers?

12.    Why do they dance with the princes?  How did it begin?

13.    Why three groves of trees, and why are their leaves made of precious metals and jewels?  (This is my favorite part of the story.)

14.    Is this enchanted world of the trees, the lake, and the castle underground?

15.    Why are the princes there?

16.    What does the soldier think of all this?

You may have come up with different questions than mine, maybe more, maybe fewer.  There’s no right or wrong number or right or wrong question.

So that’s my approach with fairy tales.  Questions jump out at me, and I make up answers.  I follow the answers to more questions and more answers, and eventually a story emerges.

When I attempted to turn “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a novel, I began by eliminating nine princesses, because three main characters seemed interesting and twelve impossible for me and the reader to keep straight.  Then I decided that the old woman was a sorcerer in disguise and that the king was consumed by grief for his dead wife, and I had an idea that the groves of trees somehow represented the seasons.  (I loved that idea.)

I got stuck in several places.  Even if the old woman was a sorcerer, I didn’t know why he/she wanted the princes discovered and why she chose the soldier, and I couldn’t figure out why they were enchanted and what their enchantment was.  At one point I decided that they might be specters, which seemed promising.

The obstacle I couldn’t get around was the princesses.  They seemed the obvious choices for heroines, but I hated them for allowing all those suitors to die.  Eventually I let the enchanted princes and the soldier go and lopped off one princess.  The sorcerer, who had been malevolent at the beginning, turned into kindly Rhys.

This wasn’t easy.  I was despairing when I couldn’t figure out the original, beloved fairy tale.  My story emerged slowly, and I no longer remember how I came to it.  The moral is, though, that the fairy tale is a jumping off point.  It doesn’t matter if you stick with it.  What’s important – the only important thing – is writing a story, which is bound to be your own, even if you hew closely to a known tale.  You’ll put something of yourself into it.

I’ve been thinking about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” again.  I may have a new approach that will allow me to write it.  But if not and it veers off again and I get another different story, I’ll just throw up my hands and celebrate.

Here’s a prompt: The craziest fairy tale I know of is “Lovely Ilonka,” which you can find in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book.  The Lang books (each named after a different color, and the series contains the well-known tales and many lesser-known ones) may be in your library, and they’ve all been digitized, so you can get them for free online.  Please don’t read the abridged version in Wikipedia, because you won’t see the full wackiness.  Read the fairy tale, ask yourself questions about it, develop your own interpretation, and see where you wind up.  Have fun, and save what you write!