Monday, November 19, 2012

Revisiting the Classics: Mother Goose and the Marks that Stories Leave

This post was part of the blog tour for Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes (Month 9 Books, 2012)

Two and Twenty Dark Tales
Edited By: Georgia McBride & Michelle Zink
Pub. Date: October 16, 2012
Publisher: Month9Books
Pages: 340
In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. The authors include Nina Berry, Sarwat Chadda, Leigh Fallon, Gretchen McNeil, and Suzanne Young.
There seems to be a cultural moment happening right now – when all sorts of children’s and YA books are revisiting the classics.

There are Greek mythology take-offs like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’ Goddess Girls series, and Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman’s Sirenz series. There are Grimm’s brothers take-offs like Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm series.

There are Shakespearean take-offs like Michelle Ray’s Falling for Hamlet, and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (which I recently wrote about in an essay called “Shakespeare in Black and White.”). And don’t even get me started on the endless Austen take-offs. From Mandy Hubbard’s Prada and Prejudice to Jennifer Ziegler’s Sass and Serendipity to … well, there are a whole lot of them is my point.

But what purpose do classic revisitations serve in the popular imagination? Clearly, there is a hunger for them, and the popularly accepted idea that being introduced to take-offs will make young readers more interested in the original stories from which they originated.

And I guess I can believe that, if it comes to stories we want young people to be reading in their original, stories whose evergreen relevance we want to celebrate – like those of Shakespeare or Austen. But what about all those mythological and fairy-tale take-offs? Are those being published because we, as a culture, are really interested in our children re-reading Ovid’s myths or the original Brothers Grimm Tales? I’m not so sure. Instead, I think, such re-tellings actually reflect how ingrained those old stories already are into our individual and collective psyches.

Take the Mother Goose retellings in Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes, a collection edited by Georgia McBride and Michelle Zink and released in October 2012 from Month 9 Books. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to enter a contest on to be the one “wild card” contributor to this volume. Unlike the other authors in the book, like Sarwat Chadda or Leigh Fallon, who were asked to contribute and therefore could choose the Mother Goose rhyme they wanted to revisit, I, as the contest winner, was given my task: to write a dark retelling of Little Boy Blue.

And so, I had to ask myself: why are childhood rhymes so important to us? How do they invoke so much memory and emotion, rising to the surface of our consciousness the moment they are mentioned? As I asked myself these questions, I kept mulling over the word "Blue" and suddenly thought of the Joni Mitchell Song Blue (which I listened to over and over again my first year of college on an old tape player I had, but I’m dating myself here):
 Blue, songs are like tattoos/.../Ink on a pin/Underneath the skin/An empty space to fill in                                                                                     ----Joni Mitchell, “Blue”
And so I started thinking about tattoos, ink, and if stories are one way we human beings mark ourselves. In my day job, I'm a professor of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, so I think a lot about the power of stories and how stories work for human beings, for communities, and for societies.
To read the rest of this essay please visit Ladybug Storytime.

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