Once Upon a Time

Vasilisa the Wise

I’m so thrilled to announce that a book I’ve been working on with the marvellous author Kate Forsyth has been picked up by Serenity Press and will be published in 2018!

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Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Girls will be a collection of seven fairy tale re-tellings written by Kate and accompanied by my illustrations. They are stories of independent girls and women; tales of adventure, bravery, kindness and strength.

It’s a fantastic process we’re following, much different to the usual writer/illustrator relationship, and a way of working that is, to an illustrator at least, both rare and wonderful. We’ve both chosen stories we love. Some Kate has written first, and sent me to work with. I have created several artworks for others, and sent them to Kate before she starts writing. We’re inspiring each other, and it really is magical. And such a privilege.

Kate has written a blog post about how we found each other which, speaking of magical, was incredibly fortuitous and an example of the importance of having a social media presence as an author and/or illustrator. Allison Tait, brilliant author of The Mapmaker Chronicles, co-host of the essential So You Want To Be a Writer podcast, and strident advocate for having a good author platform (in fact she even teaches a course on it!) introduced us on Twitter thinking that Kate might like my work. Thankfully she was right! Kate bought one of my prints to celebrate finishing her PhD, and we kept corresponding, hoping that we might be able to work together one day. We came up with a plan, did some work… and two years later, we can finally tell you all about it!

It really has been a project of lucky, magical and fortuitous connections. Around a month ago, Kate posted the following on her Facebook page:

One day I’d like to write #fairytale retellings of little-known tales with brave, clever heroines for teenage girls to read. Would anyone like to publish stories like that?

And Monique from Serenity Press said yes! Now we are three women, from three corners of the country (Sydney, Perth & regional Victoria) working on this book together. With all that each of us have to contribute, it really is going to be a wondrous thing.

Cheers to that!

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How to Destroy a Fairy Tale

images-2You’ve all heard the cry that Disney is destroying ‘true’ fairy tales, one by one. Probably also that contemporary re-writers of fairy tales are twisting them into corrupt and damaged things, particularly those YA authors, with all that sex and death and hormones. It’s a cry that has rung out before; when sentimentality reigned in Victorian times; when tales were first fixed in writing instead of living in the oral tradition. It’s not a rare thing to decry the contemporary moment as the worst and most corrupting time for some beloved part of our culture. It happens with music/art/fashion. Photography meant the death of painting. (It didn’t). The mini skirt was the end of style. (It wasn’t). Rock and roll would corrupt us all. (We seem to be doing ok).

Fairy tales seem to hold a certain sanctity for us – probably because they link firmly back to our childhood. In our minds they are a sacred text. We hold close the Golden Books, anthologies and worn editions of Grimm and Anderson that gave us our safe and predictable Once upon a times and Happily ever afters. It is that sensation, I’m sure, that causes many to lament the contemporary ruination of those ‘original’ fairy tales.

What we often forget though is that there is absolutely no such thing as an original fairy tale. As I’ve written about previously, Cinderella can be traced back to old China. Sleeping Beauty has so many incarnations and variations, and exists in some form or another in so many cultures, that it’s impossible to trace it back to one source. And it’s the same for most of the tales we know and love. There is no original version. Stories pass through cultures and times like roughly spun wool through cloth; changing colour and ply as they go. Sometimes hidden, sometime caught up in a knot, but running unbroken throughout generations.

525e1-knittingThis is what frustrates me about the claim that we’re spoiling them now. We might not agree with how the Disney corporation treats its princesses (I certainly don’t!), but they have as much of a place in the evolution of fairy tales as did the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In fact I have as much of a bone to pick with Anderson over his portrayal of women as Disney – if not more so.

I recently read someone expressing their anger over writers like Neil Gaiman claiming to ‘fix’ fairy tales by altering gender roles and storylines. And I agree wholeheartedly with her argument that that we can’t let new stories suppress the old ones, but we’ve been ‘fixing’ fairy tales ever since we’ve been telling them. Every generation alters its fairy tales to fit within their own cultural context – stories would soon lose their power and agency if we didn’t. Yes, we need the comfort and lessons of tradition, but we also need to relate. And if that means reading female protagonists who more closely fit our feminist ideals, well then hoorah! About time too. And if YA and Adult Fiction writers are putting sex and death back into fairy tales (there was plenty of it before anthologists like the Brothers Grimm realised that parents were reading their stories to their children), then great! There’s room for all of it.

I argue that the only way to destroy a fairy tale is to freeze it in time; to leave it locked in a glass case, untouched and ‘sacred’. Fairy Tales have always evolved, they are right now, and they will continue to far into the future. And may they live happily ever after.

PS: This blog post has suddenly had an extra 250+ views via Facebook overnight, but I don’t know who or where from. If it was you, thank you! If you are one of those many lovely people who clicked over, I’d love to know who led you here. If you could leave a comment and let me know, I’d be ever thankful.  Lorena.

Review: Marina Warner’s ‘Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale’

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Imagine the history of fairy tale as a map, like the Carte du Tendre, the ‘Map of Tenderness’, drawn by Parisian romancers to chart the peaks and sloughs of the heart’s affections… (Loc 50)

So begins the prologue to Marina Warner‘s new book on fairy tales Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. At 226 pages it is a much slimmer follow up to her 1996 book From the Beast to the Blonde, but no less enlightening or engaging. Warner weaves her dialogue beautifully, sometimes slipping into a metaphorical narrative much like fairy tales themselves. This could come across as strained or twee in clumsier hands, but Warner is a confident and self-possessed writer. The great history of storytelling comes to flourishing life under her deft touch. In chapter three, Voices on the Page, while discussing the essence of fairy tales, she writes:

Think of it as a plant genus, like roses or fungi or grasses, which seed and root and flower here and there, changing species and colour and size and shape where they spring. Or think of it as a tune, which can migrate from a voice to a symphony to a penny whistle, for a fairy tale does not exist in a fixed form or medium. The stories’ interest isn’t exhausted by repetition, reformulation, or retelling, but their pleasure gains from the endless permutations performed on the original. (Loc 606)

I have a confession to make. Often, while reading academic writing, my mind tends to wander; my eyes skip over the words. I can get to the end of a piece of writing and hardly be able to tell you anything I just read. I may make something up. Not so in this case. Warner’s language is clear and poetic. She leads you along an open forest path with sure footing and a bright torch. We see fairy tales as they are; not a dusty collection of old and irrelevant stories, but stories that travel, adapt and take on new meanings. She reminds us, on every page, why fairy tales are still relevant and important today. They have never existed in solitude, and Warner leads you through their connections to psychology, feminism, fantasy and the supernatural. She evaluates their history, their meaning, and the way they have woven (and been woven into) our very lives.

The chapters in Once Upon a Time are divided into themes. They range from the factual ‘Voices on the Page’ which introduces many of the tellers, writers and translators of fairy tales, to the barely constrained rally cry of ‘In the Dock: Don’t Bet on the Prince” which details the post-war feminist subversion of the fairy tale. Interestingly, the title references Jack Zipes’ book of feminist fairy tales Don’t Bet on the Prince. Here she celebrates, among others, the feminist works of theoreticist Ruth Bottigheimer, poet Anne Sexton and all-round-fairy-tale-feminist-superstar Angela Carter. One thing that makes this work so engaging is Warner’s refusal to stay neutral. In her dissent from fusty academic writing, she gives us sentences like “Aroused by Freud’s question, ‘What do women want?’, which lies at the centre of conjectures made by (mostly male) analysts, [feminists] seized hold of fairy tales and shook them till the stories choked, spat out the poison, and sat up ready for a different day… Fairy Tales were denounced as a blunt tool of patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, physchoanalysts bent on curbing girls’ energies and desires.” (Loc 1522)  I heard a whoop in there, didn’t you?

The ideas in this book run deep. If you’re after light bedtime reading, this is no Disney-esque romp. Like tales of old, Warner’s book does far more that skim from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’. There is darkness with the light, and deliberation and passion in her words. While Warner’s writing isn’t hard to read, you’ll still need to put the book down every now and then, to take a walk or stare out the window, to allow the information to sink in. The path she leads us on is clear, but the forest is dense. Your head will fill quickly with new ideas and information. But don’t see this as obstacle. You will finish this book wiser about, and more in awe of, fairy tales, human nature and the many threads that tie our world together.

Thank you to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the advance reading copy of this book.