A slew of recent literary fiction with young adult protagonists is at last restoring fairytales’ socially subversive origins
This week Kitty Crowther won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for her children’s book illustrations. It was fitting vindication for an artist who demonstrates that, in the words of the judges, “the door between imagination and reality is wide open”. Astrid Lindgren was the creator of that evergreen girlsworld heroine, Pippi Longstocking. While classic literature is full of spiky and interesting females – think too of Eloise, Anne Shirley, the March sisters, Mildred Hubble and the girls of What Katie Did, the Chalet School Girls and innumerable copycats and knock-offs – it’s the door to the world of imagination that I’m interested in. Girls such as Pippi saw me through childhood and adolescence. But the world of magic and fantasy never closed.
Talking about fairytales conjures up a hypocritical world of revolting pastel Victorian nursery tales or, worse, the creepy sublimated fantasies of JM Barrie and Lewis Carroll. In this era, the dark heart of folktales, spinsters’ warnings and childhood myths was broken and corseted tight inside a patriarchal ideology which made the heroines ciphers, the men saviours and lifelong marital servitude – sorry, “bliss” – the goal. Originally, as everyone knows, Cinderella was visited by the ghost of her dead mother, not a fairy godmother, as she slaved for her father. And Sleeping Beauty was raped, not awoken with a kiss. The Victorians overwrote the reality of women’s oppression with a fantasy about how a lady who does nothing but suffer in silence gets rewarded in the end.
Recently, though, there has been a seachange in the way we think about fairytales. It was kickstarted academically by Marina Warner’s now-classic study From the Beast to the Blonde, Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, Angela Carter’s stories and Canongate’s wonderful series of updated legends, whose contributors include Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood. AS Byatt’s current masterpiece, The Children’s Book, is interpolated with fables crafted by one of the protagonists, expressing her own ambivalence about motherhood and creativity even as she presents an image of paradisiacal domestic perfection to friends and neighbours. Byatt has a long-standing interest in these seemingly simple, actually deeply subtextual tales: a previous novel, Babel Tower, was interwoven with a medieval fantasy story which commented upon the main text, and her story collections Elementals, The Little Black Book of Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye all reference them.
The world of the other, of gods and demons, fairies and tricks, is there to teach us about this world, the world of families, houses, love and hate, happiness and sorrow. The women protagonists, the women tellers and the girl and women listeners know – or are shortly to discover – what “civilised society” is like – how hypocritical, confining, unjust and corrupt. A slew of recent literary fiction with young adult protagonists continues to restore fairytales’ socially subversive origins.
Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels has caused an international splash, with its incestuous rapist father and a brave daughter who would rather venture into the comforting darkness outside than remain in the treacherous darkness at home. Meg Rosoff’s The Bride’s Farewell and Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth also contrast the so-called safety of home with the risky but strengthening challenges of adventure. The fast-paced books of Sally Gardner and the work of Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, combine ripping plots with a message about adult life at large. And, though it may not be an enchanted wood or magical castle, BR Collins’s fantasy world of Evgard, which features in her amazing novel The Traitor Game, is the terrifying, obsessive creation of the book’s two protagonists, its topography reflecting what happens when one of them is brutally attacked.
Finally, should any reader find themselves lonely by the fire on a cold and windy night, Kelly Link‘s stories are the finest modern incarnation of the oldest storytelling tradition. Her collections Pretty Monsters and Magic for Beginners will enrich the hours while you wait for Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, to write her next adult magic blockbuster.