Royal Role Models in YA/MG Literature

In response to Disney Princess week, Bailey Shoemaker Richards at SPARK counters with her own list of awesome princesses from MG/YA literature. As Bailey says: “The main characters in these books are, become or interact with princesses, and all of them have to deal with the implications of femininity in their own worlds.”

I have to admit: I was crazy about Ariel, Belle, and the other Disney princesses when I was little, and I think these characters still have a lot to offer girls. But when the princess line is marketed as just focusing on the fact that these ladies are princesses and wear pretty dresses, that’s a problem.

Bailey’s list includes three of my favorite MG fantasy heroines: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Alanna from The Song of the Lioness. All such awesome choices and complex characters outside of being royalty or near royalty. Bailey talks about each character and what makes her compelling, so click through to read more.

A couple of other suggestions I’d add:

Ani (aka Isi) from The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
This is one of my favorite fairy tale adaptations. Ani has a hard time being a princess and manages to find her own strength when her position is challenged. I love seeing Ani’s progression from awkward and uncertain to a confident, sensitive leader. (Shannon Hale has a bunch of other strong female characters in fairy tale adaptations, so Ani stands in for them as well.)

Beauty from Beauty by Robin McKinley
I especially like Beauty’s relationship with her family in McKinley’s retelling. In the original tale, Beauty’s sisters are selfish and spoiled, but here the family gets along well. Leaving them behind means a lot for Beauty, and I like how McKinley reinforces Beauty’s quiet bravery.

Who are your favorite women from MG/YA fantasty?

Let It Snow (White)

By now, you’ve probably noticed that Snow White is having a good year. There are two Snow White-inspired movies out or coming out, both featuring some pretty major Hollywood actors. NPR takes a look at why 2012 might be Snow’s year. One theory looks at Snow White and our contemporary interest in the aging process (and trying to stop it):

“What’s interesting now,” [Mirror, Mirror screenwriter Melissa] Wallack says, “is that almost the first time really in history, you can remain young. Everyone now is out there shooting themselves with Botox.” In the movie, in fact, Julia Roberts gets an Evil Queen spa special with scorpion bites, bee stings, bird poop and grubs digging around in her ears.

Although Botox and other treatments claim to keep you young, there’s still a stigma about resorting to these methods. And they don’t always make you look exactly like you did twenty years ago. I can understand a social anxiety about aging and the next generation creeping up. (Even now I feel kind of old when I see teen tv stars. Who are these kids?)

Another theory involves mother/daughter struggles:

The tension between the princess and the queen, says Harvard professor Maria Tatar, might also help explain Snow White’s recent revival: “Maybe the mother-daughter rivalry that has caught our attention with so many women trying to remain youthful now.”

You can even see that, says Tatar, on a reality show fairy tale like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s filled with beautiful princesses, sham weddings — and, like Snow White, an older-versus-younger-woman dynamic. “The mother is constantly competing with her daughters for attention, and she’s got these gorgeous daughters; she becomes more anxious than ever about aging.”

This makes sense to me. Between Amy Poehler’s hilarious interpretation of a “cool mom” in Mean Girls to real parents who buy their babies designer clothes or t-shirts emblazoned with indie rock band names, parents are increasingly trying to maintain a sense of youth. And who can blame them? Just because you have kids doesn’t mean your life is over. But problems can arise when you value being cool or beautiful over being a parent.

Also, it’s kind of nice to see (what I assume are) more active roles for Snow White. She was never my favorite fairy tale princess because she a) doesn’t understand that you shouldn’t take candy from strangers, and b) passes out. I haven’t seen the movies so I’m not sure how their roles are actually handled, but it’s nice to get a glimpse of Snow White as someone more in control of her own destiny.

(image: Rob Webb)

Red and the Wolf

A really arresting take on Little Red Riding Hood:

Between the silhouetted animation, the intense music, and the take on violence in the fairy tale, I found it captivating. Even though it’s a somewhat gruesome take, I’m very intrigued by the idea of how the hero doesn’t necessarily live happily ever after, even if she’s survived. Kudos to directors Jorge Jaramillo and Carlo Guillot.

(via Alyssa at Think Progress–more on fairy tales there too)

Into the Woods

When I was five or so, Disney was able to release The Little Mermaid. I was intrigued by the trailer and asked my brother what the story was about. His version: the little mermaid falls in love with the prince. To stay human, she has to stab two holes in her feet and throw herself overboard. I had great fun throwing my dolls off the couch, cheering about their sacrifice. Of course, when the movie came out I realized that my brother’s version wasn’t entirely accurate. (I was obsessed with the movie, by the way.)

Even though my brother missed a lot of major points, it’s probably closer to the original tale than the Disney version is. Most fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, or any other pre-20th century storyteller are a lot darker than the stories we tell children today. Granted, these were folktales, and not specifically children’s stories, so it would make sense that they’re a lot more violent or scary than most picture books. In a recent article, the Globe and Mail took a look at what it means for fairy tales to be dark and gritty or sanitized and safe. One point I liked:

“In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that the frightening elements of fairy tales helped children “grapple with emotional problems,” as Prof. Zipes puts it. Fairy tales give children a symbolic space, removed from reality, in which to deal with – and conquer – their anxieties safely.”

I think the idea of using stories as a safe way to grapple with personal fear and anxiety is huge. The evil stepmother can be scary, but she almost always fails and is brought to justice. This can help kids understand that even if things scare us, that doesn’t mean we can’t face our fears, like going to school or sleeping alone.

Still, it’s wise to understand that not all children are always ready to hear scarier stories:

But many feel that young children are too vulnerable to be exposed to the gory details from the original stories – such as Snow White’s stepmother being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she died. “As adults we can see the innocence in fairy tales, but a five-year-old with an overactive imagination could take things too literally,” Steve Hornsey, of the television channel Watch, which commissioned the British study, told the Daily Telegraph”

As with any media, it’s necessary to know what your child’s personal boundaries are, and to talk about potentially scary topics with your child in a safe setting. And maybe some fairy tales are best held until a child is a little older and can understand better what stories are. I thought it was cool to find out that the Disney fairy tales, which I loved as a kid, weren’t the same as the stories they were based on. I was much older by that point, and it didn’t ruin the “safer” versions either–it expanded the world of fairy tales.

Check out the rest of the article for lots of other good points about presenting fairy tales for modern audiences.

(image: Arthur Rackham, via Fantasy Art Workshop)

Tale as Old as Time

Finding hundreds of new fairy tales is an awesome way to start the week:

“A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.”

I am so into this kind of thing. When I was in high school I wrote a paper on the Grimm brothers and their connection to German nationalism. (And kind of had fun writing it.) Now we have more folk tales and verbal history/culture to talk about*? So cool!

*ie, to inspire more YA novels. (via bookshelves of doom) (image: Gustave Dore, via SurLaLune)

We Live in a Magical World

From The Horn Book’s interview with literary master Jane Yolen:

Do you believe in magic?

I believe there are prestidigitators who can do card tricks and saw-the-woman-in half tricks. I believe there are politicians who can make us believe up is down and wrong is right. I believe there are preachers who try to sell us a mess of pottage.

And then I believe that an owl in flight, a hawk in stoop, an otter rising out of the duckweed, a triple rainbow over the Isle of May, the New Jersey skyline as seen from the Highline in Manhattan on a night of the full moon, the small greenings of spring, honeybees on a blossom, and a newborn’s finger curled around mine are small everyday miracles, another word for ordinary magic. And that I believe in.

Oh — and if anyone can show me a real fairy, or a ghost, or a unicorn, I am so there . . . .

Challenge accepted, Jane.

Click through for more of Yolen’s thoughts on fairy tales, contemporary fantasy novels, and her latest novel, Snow in Summer.

PS–Yolen also has some great suggestions for writers on her website.