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SPOTLIGHT: Books That Haunt a Child Forever

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

BOOKS THAT HAUNT A CHILD FOREVER

Bertrand Russell said, ‘There are only two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; two, that you can boast about it.’

Children, of course, rarely read a book for any other reason than enjoyment. And there really should be no other reason to read. 

Books give us entertainment and escape, refreshment and relaxation, and even, perhaps, wisdom. 

The best of them also bewitch us, giving us some sense of beauty and astonishment that stays with us all of our lives.

One of my favourite writers, Susan Cooper, wrote about one of her favourite writers, Walter de la Mare: 

“I’ve had my copy of this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year – 
sometimes for solace, sometimes for sunlight, always with an emotion that I have never quite been able to define. 

Come Hither is my talisman, my haunting: a distillation of the mysterious quality that sings out of all the books to which I’ve responded most deeply all my life –
and that I deeply hope as a writer I might someday, somehow, be able to catch.”

That quote says exactly what I feel most passionately about books and about my writing. I too want to write books that become talismans, 
to write books that have that “mysterious quality that sings”.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising is a book that has haunted me all my life. 



So too:

Philippa Pierce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden

Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe

Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse

Ursula le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea 

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase 

 Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life. 


There are, of course, others. 

These, however, are my magic seven, the ones I have returned to so many times 

their flimsy paperbacks are falling to pieces in my hands.


What all these books have in common is a sense of wonder and mystery, 

a feeling that adventure and magic is lurking just around the corner. 


They are also silver-tongued. 

The writing is vivid and supple and lucent. 

The characters are alive, dancing and joking and fighting and fearing 

and losing and sorrowing and prevailing at sometimes a great cost. 

They sing.


Lucy Boston once wrote: “

I believe children, even the youngest, love good language, and that they see, feel, understand 

and communicate more, not less, than grownups. 

Therefore I never write down to them, but try to evoke that new brilliant awareness that is the world.’



Me too!

Every book I have ever written is in homage to these writers – among others – 

and these books – among others. 


Yet it is the Gypsy books – the series that has driven me and my family close 

to madness these past eighteen months – that I hope will come to haunt its readers 

in the way that Walter de la Mare’s book haunted Susan Cooper, 

and Susan Cooper’s books haunted me.


The Gypsy Crown is the first in a series of six books that follow the adventures of 

two thirteen-year old Romany children, Luka and Emilia, as they set out on 

a perilous adventure to find six lucky charms that will, they hope, help them 

save their families from the gallows. 


The books take place in the last three weeks of Cromwell’s life, in August 1658, 

and move very quickly, each book taking place over a matter of two or three days.

In each book there is a challenge to be met and a price to be paid, 

before Luka and Emilia can win the lucky charm. 

They get tangled up with Royalist spies, smugglers, 

highwaymen, witches, and impoverished aristocrats. 

Every step of the way, they must out-run and out-wit 

a vindictive thief-taker called Coldham.


On this journey, they go to real places, like Amberley Castle in Sussex 

or the Mermaid Inn in Rye, and meet real people, 

like the Countess of Dysart who was a double agent 

for the exiled King Charles II. 


We have a map in each book that shows the journey Luka and Emilia take, 

and at the back we have a section entitled ‘The Facts Behind the Fiction’, 

crammed full of all sorts of fascinating information about the Rom 

and the seventeenth century, including a recipe for baked hedgehog 

and an explanation for why Cromwell banned Christmas.



The books are full of suspense, surprise, adventure and, I hope, humour. 

They can be read by children who love fantasy, 

and those who like to know about real things and true things. 


The last chapter of the first book is called ‘Magic or Not?’ 

and this is a question that is asked throughout the whole series. 

Emilia believes fervently that the charms she is collecting are magic. 

Luka, however, is a matter-of-fact boy who thinks their success 

is due to their own wit and cleverness. Readers can choose whom to believe.


I’m a passionate advocate of books which empower children - 

books which teach children they have the chance to choose 

what they become, and that their choice can change the world.


In fantasy books, hobbits can become heroes, ugly ducklings can become swans, 

and Romany children – universally believed to be thieves and tricksters – 

can change not only their own fortune, but the whole course of history.


Jane Yolen – another favourite writer of mine! – said: 

“A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book 

cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. 

What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child 

that has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, 

or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known?” 


My Chain of Charms series are the first books I know of that feature the Rom – 

one of the most mysterious and maligned races of people in the world – 

as heroes, not just as highly-coloured background props.


In a speech I gave recently I found myself saying, 

‘I love writing for this age group – for children between 8  & 13. 

It was the age in which I first really discovered books and reading. 

It was the age in which I laid down my idea of the world and how it works. 

The books I read then are the books which I have carried with me all my life. 

At this age, I can still hope to surprise and enchant my readers. 

I can still hope to save them.’


Until I said this, I did not know that was what I longed for. 

Yet I do. 

To haunt my readers with beauty, to astonish them with the strange and the miraculous, 

to help them realise they have the power to change the world. 


This is what I, as a writer, deeply hope I might someday, somehow, catch and pass on.




Kate Forsyth’s books are bestsellers round the world, having been translated into German, Russian, Italian and Japanese, as well as sold in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Canada. To research her Chain of Charms series, she took her three children – all aged under eight – round south-east England, travelling in her footsteps of her Romany children. She still re-reads the most loved books of her childhood – sometimes to her children.


(This article was first published in Magpies in 2004)

SPOTLIGHT: Sleeping Beauty

Monday, April 18, 2016

SLEEPING BEAUTY

History of the Tale

The earliest ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale appears in oral tradition around 1300, in the tale 'Troylus and Zellandine'.  In this tale, a disgruntled deity places a curse on the young Princess Zellandine that causes her to go into a deep slumber. Many years later, Prince Troylus happens upon the princess and rapes her in her sleep. As a result, she has a child. In 1528, the same story appears in print for the first time, in Paris, in a book of romances called Perceforest.


The tale ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ was written by Neapolitan writer and courtier Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s, and published posthumously in 1634 in a collection of stories called The Tale of Tales. This also included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel. 

Basile's story is not as pretty as the tale we know. It features the rape of the sleeping beauty, attempted infanticide, forced cannibalism and the threat of being burned alive.

Here is a brief outline of Basile's tale: 
 
It is prophesied at Talia’s birth that she will one day face great danger from a chip of flax. Her father orders that all flax be removed from the kingdom. When she is grown, Talia manages to find the only piece of flax in the entire kingdom, gets a splinter of it stuck beneath her fingernail, and falls into a deathlike sleep. 

Her father, beside himself with grief, orders the palace and surrounding countryside be abandoned so he can put the event out of his mind.

Eventually, another king stumbles upon the abandoned kingdom, and finds Talia sleeping alone. Unable to wake her, he decides to have sex with her while she sleeps. Talia falls pregnant and, without waking, eventually gives birth to twins. While the babies try to suckle, one sucks on her finger and the flax splinter is loosened. Talia wakes up, and is overjoyed to find herself the mother of twins, which she names Sun and Moon.

The king returns and finds Talia awake and his twin childrenborn. A relationship develops between them. 
The king’s wife learns of the affair and, pretending to be the king, sends for Sun and Moon. She gives them to the cook, and tells him to slaughter and roast them and serve them to the king. The cook, unable to kill the babies, hides the twins and serves up two baby lambs instead. The queen watches gleefully as the king devours the meal. 

She then sends for Talia, and demands she be burned alive. The King hears Talia screaming, and rescues her just in time. The awful queen is thrown in the fire instead, and roasts to death. The cook then produces the twins, alive and well, and they all live happily ever after.

In one 14th century version of the tale, the sleeping princess tells off the king and points out her lack of consent before deciding to give him another chance.


La belle au bois dormant’  was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, most probably drawing upon Basile’s stories which may have been brought to the French court in mid-1690s by an Italian publisher. Perrault's Mother Goose tales also included such well-known stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots. 

In Perrault's tale, a king invites seven fairies to bless his newborn daughter, and prepares golden plates and cutlery for them. One fairy was not invited because she was so old and no-one had seen her for so long. However, she comes anyway and then is angry  because there is no golden plate for her. She curses the baby princess to prick her on a spindle finger & die. One of the other fairies saves her by changing the curse of death to the curse of sleeping for 100 years.

At the age of 15 or 16, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. The fairy puts the whole castle to sleep as well. A prince hears the story of the sleeping princess and goes to find her – the wood that hides the castle shows him the path. He finds the princess and kneels before her. The princess wakes up (NB: there is no kiss in Perrault's story) and they are married.

Perrault's story does not end here. The prince keeps Sleeping Beauty hidden for a few years and they have two children called Morning & Day. At last he becomes king & takes his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother is an ogress – she conspires to eat the children and the princess but is outwitted by the cook, in a similar fashion to Basile's story. The Ogress queen dies in a tub of toads and snakes.

The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War.




'Dörnroschen' (Little Brier Rose) – Grimm Brothers

The story was told to Wilhelm Grimm by a young woman, Marie Hassenpflug, who had French ancestors and was included in the first 1812 edition.

The tale is different to Perrault's in the following ways: 
Differences 
- it has a much simpler style, closer to ‘oral’ traditions
- the Queen is told of her pregnancy by a crab (in later versions a frog) 
- There are 13 fairies but the king only has 12 golden plates so he does not invite one
- The thirteenth fairy curses the princess to prick herself with a spindle and die
- The twelfth fairy changes the curse to a sleep of 100 years
- When she pricks her finger, the whole castle falls magically asleep
- A thorn hedge grows up around the castle 
- Many princes try and fight through the thorns but fail – then the right prince comes along and the thorns turn into flowers 
- When he finds the sleeping princess, he kisses her
- The princes wakes up and so does the whole castle
- The story ends with their marriage


Jacob & Wilhelm argued about including this tale because of its French origins (they were collecting tales with German origins), but Wilhelm argued for its inclusion because of 1) its beauty and romance 2) it had linked to the Norse myth Sigur and Brynhild – she was a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was cursed to marry a mortal. She feared being wed to a coward, so was allowed to sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire until there was a man brave enough to ride through it and wake her. She had fallen asleep after pricking her hand on a thorn from the ‘sleep tree’. 



Motifs & Meaning Of Tales

Bruno Bettelheim , the Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote in his seminal work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ that Beauty’s sleep is the physical lethargy that occurs at puberty.  He sees the pricking of her finger as a symbol of menstruation, and sees sexual imagery in the girl’s search for a secret room, the circular stair, and the key in the lock. Therefore her awakening is a sexual awakening 

Maria Tatar has written:  “The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map a female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to passive, introspective period of latency”.

Joseph Campbell notes that fairy tales are often about girls who resist growing up. At the crisis of the threshold crossing, she baulks. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers.

Contrary to most feminist readings of the tale as being a bout a passive princess, many scholars have seen the Sleeping Beauty tale as containing remnants of matriarchal myth. 

In ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’, Marie-Therese von Franz says: ‘ the mother of the Sun and the Moon is not an ordinary human being, so you could say it is a symbol. But if the children were Sun and Moon, or Day and Dawn, as in other versions, you are [. . .] in the realm of what we normally call the world of the gods.’ (ie Sleeping Beauty is representative of the Great Goddess) 

This interpretation is borne up by some of the symbols in the story, such as the spinning wheel, a feminine tool and an instrument of the Fates. It symbolizes death—i.e. the cutting of the thread. The hundred-year sleep of the princess is evocative of winter and Persephone’s ordeal, and her awakening to love is therefore the awakening of spring. 

In ‘Once Upon a Time’, Max Luthi builds on this mythological interpretation, saying Sleeping Beauty ‘tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of a new day.’(Aurora)

Luthi finds it significant that Sleeping Beauty is fifteen when she touches the spindle and falls into her enchanted sleep: she is 'in the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood.' Every important turning point, every transition from one stage of life to another, are times of threat and danger and change. 

'The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than the imaginatively stylized love story of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind,' Luthi writes. 

Luthi also examines the idea that the twelve good fairies in the Grimm version of the tale may reflect "the twelve months (of the year) which bestow their manifold gifts of the earth and on nature.' The thirteenth fairy who was provoked to anger may then personify the "dethroned , neglected thirteenth month (and thus may) portray the transition from the lunar year with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve.'

In the same line of thought, 'the 100 years ... is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in its sleep.' 

Luthi warns to be careful of such 'sophistical allegorising', saying 'one must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly.'  Nonetheless, he says, Sleeping Beauty is not just a romantic fairy tale but a story filled with powerful themes of 'danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection.'  



Modern Retellings

'Sleeping Beauty' was a 1959 Disney animated musical fantasy film, the 16th in the Animated Classics series, it was released to theaters on January 29, 1959, by Buena Vista Distribution. This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years because of its initial disappointing box office gross and mixed critical reception. The studio did not return to the genre until years later, after Walt Disney died, with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).

The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The heroine has only 18 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film & appears in the film for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film, and her last is delivered 39 minutes into the film. However, she does sing two songs during this time frame.

The seven fairies were changed to three so that it was not too much like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. 


Sleeping Beauty
is also the name of a 2011 Australian film written and directed by Julia Leigh. It stars Emily Browning as a young university student who begins doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to sleep in bed alongside paying customers. The film is based in part on the novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

In Matthew Bourne’s 2013 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, the action starts in 1890, the year the ballet first premiered in St. Petersburg. Baby Aurora is humorously portrayed by a puppet and the fairies are both male & female. Instead of beauty, grace and modesty, they bestow passion, plenty, spirit, temperament and presciently, rebirth. The wicked fairy Carabosse is danced by a man.


The Disney movie Maleficent has recently been released, starring Angelina Jolie.

Maleficent is a fictional character from Walt Disney Pictures's 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Here is the blurb:

Maleficent is the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realises that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

I find this new take on the story particularly interesting, with the story being told from the point of view of the villainness allowing a new complexity of character and new moral ambiguity.



My Favourite Retellings of 'Sleeping Beauty' 


Sophie Masson. Clementine. Lady Aurora, daughter of the Count and Countess of Joli-Bois, and Clementine, the local woodcutter's child, have been firm friends for all of their sixteen years. Until, that is, the day they stumble upon a castle they never knew existed … A century later, Lord Arthur, a young amateur scientist, is determined to find out. But he discovers that science is no match for a magic that has been lying untouched for over one hundred years...

Adela Geras. Watching the Roses. Raped on the night of her eighteenth birthday by the despicable Angus, Alice remains in her room, in a near-catatonic state, communicating only with her diary, in a modern version of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess must ultimately save herself.


Helen Lowe. Thornspell. - reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince. Read my review and an interview with Helen Lowe here  

Robin McKinley. Spindle's End.  Katriona, an apprentice fairy sees the wicked fairy, Pernicia, delivers the curse: one day before her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, fall into a poisoned sleep, and die. Katriona flees with the infant princess in order to save her.

Jane Yolen. Briar Rose. Written by one of the true greats in the field of folk and fairy tales, this novel explores the Holocaust with a storyline borrowed from Sleeping Beauty – brilliant!



Sleeping Beauty & Me

Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my own personal fairy tales, and images of roses and thorns are entwined through many of my books.

I am currently working on a fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults inspired by the fascinating story behind the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones's creation of a series of paintings inspired by 'The Legend of Briar Rose'. He painted it a number of times over thirty years, including this gorgeous version:

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

I will be blogging about the new novel BEAUTY IN THORNS as I go along - and I make regular progress reports on my Facebook page and Twitter.

And of course I'm always blogging about fairy tales

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



BOOK REVIEW: THE CURSE OF THE THIRTEENTH FEY by Jane Yolen

Monday, March 28, 2016



THE BLURB: 

A reimagining of Sleeping Beauty from a master storyteller. 

Gorse is the thirteenth and youngest in a family of fairies tied to the evil king's land and made to do his bidding.

Because of an oath made to the king's great-great-ever-so-many-times-great-grandfather, if they try to leave or disobey the royals, they will burst into a thousand stars.

When accident-prone Gorse falls ill just as the family is bid to bless the new princess, a fairytale starts to unfold. Sick as she is, Gorse races to the castle with the last piece of magic the family has left--a piece of the Thread of Life.

But that is when accident, mayhem, and magic combine to drive Gorse's story into the unthinkable, threatening the baby, the kingdom, and all.

With her trademark depth, grace, and humor, Jane Yolen tells readers the "true" story of the fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Jane Yolen is a wonderful writer of fantasy and historical fiction for young adults, and has a particular interest in fairy tales that has long drawn me to her work.

The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey is a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty tale, told from the point of view of the thirteenth fey (the one that cast the curse of death on the princess).

It's written with a great deal of humour and charm, and all ends happily (even though the princess and her family are really not very nice people). 

SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 


The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.


I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 



The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 


The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 


Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.
 

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 


As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.



In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.


As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:


A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here




 
I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.


The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.


One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!




Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 


And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.

 


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


REVIEW: Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Snow in Summer

by Jane Yolen 

THE BLURB:

With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.

This Snow White tale filled with magic and intrigue during the early twentieth century in Appalachia will be hard to forget.

MY THOUGHTS:

Jane Yolen is a wonderful American children’s author known for her interest in fairy tales and folklore. I have read and enjoyed many of her books, in particular The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose. Snow in Summer is a reworking of the Snow White fairy tale, set in the hillbilly mountains of West Virginia during the Great Depression. The story is both familiar and unfamiliar, as the best fairy tale retellings are. It is not her finest work, but a must-read for anyone interested in the imaginative use of fairy tales. 


SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Retellings

Thursday, May 07, 2015

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS

A few months ago, I gave a speech on fairy tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I've had a lot of queries from people who were unable to make it for various reasons (including vast distances) and so I've summarised my speech into a couple of blogs so everyone may enjoy.  Here is a brief rundown on fairy tale retellings and ways to use them in your own creative work ...



A fairy tale retelling is a story which retells or reimagines a fairy tale, or draws upon well-known fairy tale symbols and structures.


Fairy tale retellings deal with personal transformation - people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways. Many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised. 

Fairy Tale Retellings are most often written as a fantasy for children or young adults.


        

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for young adults


Not all, however. In recent years, there have been a number of beautiful, powerful and astonishing fairy tale retellings for adults too. 

          
      

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for adults

My own novel BITTER GREENS is a sexy and surprising retelling of the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force . It moves between Renaissance Venice and the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century Versailles and Paris, imagining the witch of the tale as a beautiful courtesan and the muse of the Venetian painter Titian. 

      

There are many different ways to draw upon fairy tales in fiction. Here is a brief overview: 


“Pure” Fairy Tale Retellings
A retelling of a fairy tale in which few changes are made to the best-known or ‘crystallised’ sequence of action and motifs. Changes tend to be small and subtle, such as adding dialogue or rhymes, naming characters, describing the setting more vividly, or smoothing out any inconsistencies. My picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, beautifully illustrated by Fiona McDonald, is an example of a "pure" fairy tale retelling. 



Fairy tale Parodies
Stories in this genre parody fairy tales for comic effect – they are usually done in picture book form, though sometimes writers do so in longer fiction also. 



Fairy Tale Pastische
A pastiche is a work of literature which celebrates the work that it imitates i.e. it is a new work which copies or mimics the style of an older literary form. A fairy tale pastiche therefore sounds like it comes from the ancient oral tradition, but is entirely new 



Sequels, prequels and Spin-Offs

Many fiction writers take a well-known fairy tale, and then create new stories that tell of the events which happened before or after the pattern of action in the 'crystallised' tale. 




Fairy Tale Allusion & Intertextuality

Some novels can draw upon fairy tale motifs, metaphors and plot patterns in more subtle ways. 

A girl may wear a red hoodie, or red dancing shoes. 

A young woman may be poor and under-valued, yet still win the heart of the most eligible bachelor

A dark forest may be a dark city … a tower may be a hospital …

My novel DANCING ON KNIVES is a contemporary romantic suspense novel set in Australia, yet it draws upon Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale, 'The Little Mermaid'. My heroine Sara is not at home in the world. She feels as if she cannot breathe, and every step causes her pain. She is haunted by the ghosts of the past, and must learn to be brave before she can begin a new life for herself. The fairy tale elements are used only as allusion and metaphor, and as a structural underpinning of the story. 




Retelling well-known tales from another Point of View

Another way to reinvigorate a well-known fairy tale is to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. I was always interested in the motivations of the witch in 'Rapunzel', and so knew right from the beginning that she would be a major point of view in BITTER GREENS. Here are a few other books which make the villain the protagonist of the story: 

      


Retelling well-known Fairy Tales in unexpected settings

Another way to revitalise a well-known fairy tale is to set it somewhere startling or unexpected. I have spent the last year working on a retelling of the Grimm Brothers'version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in Nazi Germany.  THE BEAST'S GARDEN will be released in late April 2015.





Books About Fairy Tales & Their Tellers

As I noted earlier, BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the ' Rapunzel' fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. As an author and oral storyteller, I am very interested in the tellers of the tales. In my novel, THE WILD GIRL, I tell the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most famous fairy tales, against the dramatic background of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. 

      
   


Retelling Little Known Fairy Tales

You do not need to only drawn upon the best-known fairy tales. There are many hundreds of beautiful, romantic and beguiling fairy tales that are not as well-known as they should be. In THE GYPSY CROWN, I retell some old Romany folk tales. In THE PUZZLE RING, I was inspired by Scottish fairy tales and history. In THE WILD GIRL, I shine a light upon some of the forgotten Grimm tales. In THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, I play with old Welsh tales. 

The only limits are your own imagination!

FURTHER READING:




Why I Love Fairy Tale Retellings

Sunday, August 31, 2014



I have loved fairy tales since I was a little girl. 

I was first given a book of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ when I was seven, and in hospital. I had been cruelly savaged by a dog as a baby and spent the first ten years of my life in and out of hospital, suffering high fevers and seemingly endless operations to repair a damaged tear duct. 

Reading that book of fairy tales were such an escape for me, and yet, also a comfort.
I could imagine myself riding a winged horse, soaring free of my narrow white hospital bed, escaping to have marvellous adventures somewhere else. 

The world of fairy tales was filled with beauty and mystery and romance and strangeness, all the things my hospital ward was lacking. In fairy tales, blinded princes were healed as I wished to be. In fairy tales, imprisoned maidens won their way free. 

I read that collection of fairy tales to tatters, and was always hungry for more. 

One day, when I was about ten, I discovered a book called The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon on my school library bookshelf. I began reading it as I walked home from school and was instantly entranced. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale and is full of charm and whimsy. I was so engrossed I walked straight past the end of my street and could possibly have kept on walking for miles, if a neighbour had not driven past and honked me back to the real world. 



That book has been such a talisman for me all of my life that I named my own daughter Eleanor (after the writer), nicknamed Ella for short (after the heroine). 

That book began my love of fairy tale retellings. A year or so later, I read The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray, a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ told from the point of view of the witch’s cat. Of all the fairy tales I loved, ‘Rapunzel’ one resonated with me the most – perhaps because I too had been a young girl locked away from the world, longing for escape, perhaps because the injuries to my eye meant that for long periods of time, I was half-blind and in pain, as the prince had been.


I began to imagine writing my own retelling of Rapunzel before I had even finished reading the book. I love The Stone Cage, and Nicholas Stuart Gray is, I think, one of the greatest children’s writers ever. Nonetheless, I needed my own retelling of the tale to be from Rapunzel’s point of view, and to give some sense of the terrible loneliness, fear and despair she must have endured. 

When I was twelve or thirteen, I read When We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis. I had found it on my great-aunt’s bookshelf while staying there one summer, and I read the whole book, cover to cover, while lying on the floor on my stomach behind her over-stuffed tapestry armchair. It was an utter revelation. Dark and strong and full of anger, it showed how well-known tales – in this case, the story of Cupid and Psyche – could be turned utterly inside-out when told from the point of view of the supposed villain of the tale. 


I began to imagine writing part of my own Rapunzel retelling from the point of view of the witch. She had always puzzled me. Why had she wanted to lock Rapunzel in the tower? What happened to her after the story ended? 

As I grew up I devoured the work of Robin McKinley, reading her wonderful retellings Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Beauty and Deerskin. I also loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, North Child by Edith Pattou (also published as East), and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. 



Then I read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, the first time I had read a retelling of a fairy tale written for adults. I knew at once that was what I wanted to do – write a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ for an adult audience.


For me, it was always a story about sexual desire and power. I never understood how it could be told as a pretty bedtime story for little children, with pictures of a smiling girl combing her hair in a tiny tower wreathed with roses. I knew, gut-deep, that Rapunzel was a far darker story.

So I began to think seriously about my own retelling. It took me seven years to write Bitter Greens – a powerfully symbolic number in fairy tales – and the book ended up very different to how I had first imagined it. As well as telling the story from the point of view of the maiden in the tower, and the witch who put her there, I also tell the story of the woman who first wrote the tale – the utterly fascinating 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

So why do I love such retellings? Because they illuminated the dark and hidden depths of fairy tales, the most mysterious and magical of all narratives.  

BOOK LIST: Books Read in May 2013

Sunday, June 09, 2013

I spent most of May 2013 on the road, touring to promote THE WILD GIRL. With an event most days and most nights, I didn't have much time (or energy) for reading. 

So I only read eight books, and some of these were very short. That brings my reading for the year to over 50 books, though, so I don't need to feel too ashamed. 


Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim 
This beautiful book is an old classic - first published in 1922 - that I have had so many people recommend to me that I finally ordered it in. I'm so glad I did - I loved it! It tells the story of four women - strangers to each other - who rent a castle in Italy for the month of April. All four are hiding bruised souls, and all four will be healed during that magical month in San Salvatore. The style is old-fashioned and rather quaint, but suits the story, and the book brims over with the promise of being able to recover and restore our lives. It made me want to hire a castle in Italy very, very badly! I watched the video too, and I think I loved that even more. A radiant story of friendship and redemption. 



The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente

How to describe this wonderful children's fantasy? Its fresh, whimsical, and a little strange; it shows remarkable daring and playfulness on the part of the author, which delights me. It reminds me of authors like James Thurbur and Mervyn Peake, with less of the darkness and more of the imaginative exuberance. I'm happy to say I'll be running a longer review and an interview with Cat in upcoming weeks - keep your eyes peeled!



The Thief – Megan Whalen Turner 

I wasn't sure about this book at first. It seemed a little slow. And, although I loved the voice of the main character - an opinionated and arrogant thief named Gen - I found the world of quasi-Ancient Rome a little like other books I'd read. I voiced my opinion on twitter, and go a flood of people saying 'read on! read on!' I'm glad that I did. The world and the characters got more interesting, and then - at the very end - there is a clever twist that I honestly did not see coming. (This rarely happens to me). Now all those tweeps are  saying to me read on! read on! Book 2 & 3 are even better ... and you know what? i think I shall read on. 


The Shadow Year – Hannah Richell
I loved this book! One of the best reads of the year so far. I've interviewed Hannah for the next issue of Good Reading Magazine so I urge you to hunt down the mag and read more about it there - I will just say that this is a perfectly structured and beautifully written novel which uses parallel narratives to stunning effect. A compelling and suspenseful novel about family, love, and loss.



The Sword of the Rightful King – Jane Yolen
As one might guess from the title, this is a retelling of the Arthurian myth. I overdosed on these quite a few years ago and have been avoiding them ever since. However, this is Jane Yolen, a writer who I LOVE. So I bought and read it, and enjoyed it hugely. Jane's writing is as easy and supple as ever, the characters are vivid and alive, and the story turned inside out and made new. I can really recommend it. 



Fearless – Daniel Morden
Dark Tales from the Woods – Daniel Morden
Tree of Leaf and Flame - Daniel Morden




Daniel Morden is a wonderful Welsh storyteller - I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers Festival and loved his subtle, clever and humorous style. He has retold a number of old tales in book form, including Fearless, better known as the Grimm tale The 'Boy Who Went Forth to Learn what fear is'. Dark Tales of the Woods is a collection of retold tales from Abram Wood, called King of the Gypsies (I actually reference him in 'The Herb of Grace', Book 3 of the Chain of Charms - he is said to have introduced the fiddle into Wales) while Tree of Leaf and Flame draws upon the Mabinogi, the famous Welsh myth cycle. The tales themselves are simple but elegantly told. Some are funny, some are frightening, all are wonderful. 


BOOK LIST: My favourite novels set in Tudor Times

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

This week on the blog I have reviewed Nancy Bilyeau's novel of Tudor intrigue, conspiracy and romance, 'The Crown', and  later in the week I'll be interviewing her. 

I have to admit one of my absolute favourite periods of history is Tudor times - all the bloodshed, torture, lust and murder - what's not to love?

It was Jean Plaidy who began my fascination with this period of time. I loved all her books about Henry VIII and his wives, the young Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

I must dig out all my old Jean Plaidys and read them again! I think it was her novels that really sparked by passionate love of historical fiction.

However, we have to credit Philippa Gregory with the current craze for Tudor novels. I really love her work! My favourites? 'The Queen's Fool' and 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Brilliant storytelling!




I have also been really enjoying the murder mysteries by British writer C. J. Sansom, set during the reign of Henry VIII, and featuring a hunchbacked yet indomitable lawyer  Matthew Shardlake:




A few books I absolutely adore that you may not be familiar with are:

'The Queen's Own Fool' by Jane Yolen, which is a brilliant YA novel abut Mary, Queen of Scots:


'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley which I first read when I was about eleven years old, and which I have revered ever since. Its a classic of children's time travel adventures, delicately done, about a girl who slips back and forth in time while staying in an old farmhouse, and finds herself caught up in the infamous Babington plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots:



Another book set in Tudor times that I enjoyed hugely recently is the historical thriller, 'The Tudor Secret' by C. W Gortner:



Happy Tudor reading!


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