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Review of the Day: Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women retold by Kate Forsyth, ill. Lorena Carrington

When the same ten fairytales get told and retold and told once again, you could understand why children would get the wrong impression about the whole genre. Children, heck. Listen to how grown adults talk about fairytales when they’re writing their think pieces. Over and over again you’ll hear about how such tales are stuck in the past, encouraging stereotypes, keeping women locked in place. And often this isn’t an untrue assessment. Still, do you know how many obscure fairytales are out there? European fairytales (which is usually what people are talking about when they discuss the form) are often rather gross and violent and wholly, thoroughly enthralling. They are also very weird. Author Adam Gidwitz of the Tale Dark and Grimm series has a wonderful piece on his website called In Defense of Real Fairytales where he explains just how important they are for children. Yet while our appetite for them hasn’t decreased, their mediums have. Fairytales, folktales and religious tales used to make up a significant chunk of the children’s book marketplace. Now you’re lucky if you can find ten good ones in a given year. I’ve found eleven for this year so far, and one of them fills a great gaping need. Books that group together strong women from history have never been more popular, or more prevalent than they are right now. So why not crank things up a notch and hand a kid a collection of fairy tales full of strong, clever, wily female characters that have to use their brains? If you’ve waited for such a collection, brimming over with strange stories and illustrated with even stranger art, this is the book you didn’t know you deserved until it arrived. Fairytale feminism, old school style.

“I wanted to give my own daughter stories that taught her that girls could be just as clever and fearless as boys, and had just as much right to be the agent of their own lives.” So writes author Kate Forsyth in her introduction to this collection of seven fairytales. Don’t look for Snow White and Cinderella here. In this book the stories have names like “The Toy Princess” and “A Bride For Me Before a Bride For You.” Exploring multiple collections, Forsyth has found and retold, in her own voice, stories of girls that go on quests, defeat villains, outwit, outsmart, and generally outdo their opponents. There’s “Katie Crackernuts” about a sister who saves a young man and a cadre of servants from the fairies, all in the hopes of rendering her sister human once more. There’s the better known titular story “Vasilisa the Wise” with Baba Yaga front and center, and the truly obscure “Rainbow Prince” where a lost prince is the one in need of rescuing. Each story is accompanied by marvelous digital photography that combines natural elements, rendering everything in evocative silhouettes.

Fairytale feminism isn’t a new concept. I’ve actually seen a couple books over the last years tackle the idea. Last year Power to the Princess: 15 Favorite Fairytales Retold With Girl Power by Vita Murrow and Julia Bereciartu took the usual suspects that Disney would usual toy with and rewrote them with a more empowering slant. And this year there was Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit which retold the old story (with Arthur Rackham’s original art, which was a nice touch) but through a distinctly feminist lens. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but I think what Forsyth is reminding us with Vasilisa is that while it’s perfectly fine to take these stories and make them our own, you don’t always have to re-invent the wheel. Books like this one, or like Fiesta Femenina: Celebrating Women of Mexican Folklore, retold by Mary-Joan Gerson, illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez, show us that strong female characters have always been around. They just don’t always get the loudest press.

The selection process for these tales was fascinating to me from the get-go. Fortunately, Forsyth and Carrington have no qualms about giving you background information on each tale, crediting where Forsyth found it , why it was selected, and why Carrington chose to illustrate it the way she did afterwards. With her Doctorate of Creative Arts in fairy tale studies, Forsyth’s knowledge of the form has led her to search in collections by lesser known fairytale collections like those by Norwegian Peter Asbjornsen or one of Andrew Lang’s many Fairy Books. Seven, as it turns out, appears to be the perfect number of tales to select for a book of this length and size. You are, of course, left wondering what ended up on the cutting room floor. What stories almost made it? Which ones were too similar to the ones already selected? I can’t speak to that, but I can speak to two choices Forsyth made that I truly appreciated. The first was how she chose to rewrite some of these stories. First off, she’s transparent with her audience. In the story “Katie Crackernuts” the original Katie didn’t bother saving the servants lost in the fairy hill. Forsyth gives her that job, then explains what she, as an author, changed along the way. Many times, she doesn’t change anything, but as long as she explains when she does, I don’t mind a jot. The second choice I really liked was the order of these stories. When Forsyth and Carrington discovered “The Toy Princess”, they had to know that it would be the one to finish out the book. But how to begin? Well, since Vasilisa’s story is probably better known than the others in this collection that made it a natural jumping off point. And it all comes together.

And speaking of coming together the silhouettes of this book quite literally do just that. Carrington’s digitally assembled photography is constructed out of separate photos, montaged together. Everything stands in dark silhouette and so adept is she at this form that she can make animals or people or fantastical creatures out of real bones and bracken, sticks and twigs and ferns and flowers. If your standard fairytale forces its characters to enter strange woods and forests, then it makes quite a bit of sense that your art would convey that environment. According to the Foreword, Forsyth purchased a piece of fairytale art from Carrington once, and when she wrote her to express her fandom, a friendship was born. Together, in tandem, the two women put this book together. Generally speaking, this is not how a book for children gets made. Editors very much prefer to pair authors with artists of their own choosing, but in this particular case I cannot imagine an editor that would be able to turn Carrington’s art away. Just look at that lion in “The Singing, Springing Lark”, with a mane like coral, a cattail like a cat’s tail, and knees enveloped in uncurled fungi. Look at the image of the mother in “The Stolen Child” falling down the cliff with two suspicious figures above her looking on and the babe’s chubby little hand reaching out for where she once was. This art either gets the tone of the book right or sets the tone. I haven’t figure out which of the two it is yet.

For the record, there are decades and decades worth of literary scholars out there willing to tell you precisely why fairytales are important and why we tell them. They’ll explain to you at length what it does for a child to see monsters put into symbolic terms. They’ll use words like “archetypal structure” and “psychoanalytic”. So why are collections of strong female characters in fairytale and folklore collections published so rarely these days? Plenty of them exist but in the wake of all these collected biographies of female heroes, wouldn’t it be desirable to have a couple collections of women of a fantastical nature as well? None of the women and girls in this book is the anti-Cinderella. A lot of them fall in love at first sight, and many marry without much forethought. They also protect their sisters, use their brains (and sometimes whips), create, defend, and ultimately win. Because once in a while, it’s nice to see the lady win. Don’t you think?

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Hmmmm I wrote this book some years, which was reissued two years ago with two new stories–NOT ONE DAMSEL IN DISTRESS. And I wasn’t the first. Filed under Good Ideas Come Around Again!

  2. This is a superbly crafted, thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable review. With fairy tales, it’s not about being ‘first’!

  3. peta white says:

    Fairytales are so culturally connected – and sharing them provides some deeper appreciation for others. Fairytale feminism is gold!! All of my favourite young people have a copy of this book! I have loved Lorena’s work for a while… it is so evocative and personal and yet broadly appealing. This review was masterful at bringing out the role of illustrations to help us (readers) appreciate the nuances of the textual representations.

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