Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fracturing Fairy Tales, Re-Imaginging History

I just finished Sarwat Chadda's Devil's Kiss, the first in his (so far) two book series about Billi San Greal (short for Bilquis), a 15 year old half-Pakistani modern day Knight Templar.

And while I enjoyed the teenage heroine and her demon-fighting ways, what I really enjoyed was Chadda's re-imagining of a historic Christian order that was so closely affiliated with the Crusades. Since the Crusades were a 'holy war' of Christian against Muslim, I found it intriguing that Chadda chose to make his heroine's mother Muslim - an 'infidel' by historic Crusader standards.

Interestingly, Islam plays a relatively small role in Kiss (perhaps conveniently, Billi's mother has died long ago.) But Chaddha does challenge the Christian-centricity of the Knights Templar stories by introducing a Jewish Oracle (or at least, Oracle's helper), some Hindu astrological charts, and explicit discussions about the importance of learning from all sorts of religious traditions - Islam included.

And while some may challenge that this is re-writing, or at least, re-imagining history, I view it in the same way I view Suniti Namjoshi's Feminist Fables or even the mythology and folklore-based writing of Rick Riordan (his Percy Jackson series or more recent Kane Chronicles) or Michael Buckley (his Sister's Grimm series). These books play fast and loose with old stories, yes, but in doing so, bring them modern day relevance and immediacy.

But there's a difference between simply re-imagining stories and re-inventing them to insert characters, voices and experiences more traditionally silenced. Like - to variable extents - Chadda and Namjoshi's books, Malinda Lo's lesbian retelling of the Cinderella story, Ash, creates narrative space in the princess canon for lesbian characters. Similarly, Diana Peterfreund's stories Rampant and Ascendant turn Western virgin-and-unicorn lore almost utterly on their heads, re-inventing virgins as kick-butt warriors and unicorns as killer beasts.

What other children's or YA books re-invent mythological or folkloric traditions with an eye to inclusion?    


  1. Francesca Lia Block has several offerings that would qualify. Her Rose and the Beast book is a collection of fairy-tale retellings including a drug-addicted sleeping beauty and a little girl running away from the wolf of sexual abuse in her own home.

    She's done a few myths as well, as in Psyche in a Dress and Echo.

    (I loved Ash and eagerly recommended it to anyone and everyone after reading it. I'm thrilled to see you included it in this post.)

  2. Thanks Satia - not familiar with her must look her up!

  3. I think Donna Jo Napoli's re-tellings fit--many of her re-tellings are from the point of view of the "villain," (The Magic Circle, Beast, Spinners, possibly more I'm forgetting) so you get a completely different version of the story. Beast also features a prince from Persia, after he's turned into a lion he winds up in Europe.
    Shannon Hale's graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, set in the American west, have Calamity Jack (Jack in the Beanstalk fame) as Rapunzel's friend/possible love interest who is part Native American. He is the main character in the sequel.

  4. Oo thanks de Pizan.. some wonderful suggestions to look up! fantastic!