Snow White and the 77 Dwarves (2015), by Davide Cali and Raphaëlle Barbanègre

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

Snow White and the 77 Dwarves

Illustrated by Raphaëlle Barbanègre

Cali - Snow White

The retelling of fairy tales for a modern readership has become a trend these days. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Donna Jo Napoli’s young adult novel retellings are spectacular, for example, and there are a number of new versions of Tam Lin (picture books and novels) that are even more engaging than the original, little-known tale. To some extent, though, the originals have a message that is still—or even more—valid than the newer, ideologically altered versions. This is the problem I have with Snow White and the 77 Dwarves. The modern twist to the story is that it is written with Snow White’s real situation in mind: imagine really having to cook and clean and care for 77 little men who have no manners and expect one to be their servant… Seventy-seven instead of seven, of course, hyperbolizes the degree of discomfort in Snow White’s life with her little men.

Snow White is harassed by the everyday repetitive work engaged in by many mothers; her wards are “kind, [but] also messy, rambunctious, naughty and VERY, VERY LOUD”; her house is a “zoo”; “It was all TOO MUCH.” So it is not surprising that in the end, she “decided to leave and take her chances with the witch.” She takes the poison apple not out of ignorance but with the intention of escaping her drudgery through a drug-induced “sleep” in the forest, “waiting to be woken by a kiss… [page turn] … oh, no, she’s NOT! Please DON’T WAKE ME UP. Thank you.” The end.

One, perhaps radical, interpretation of this story reveals the link between Snow White’s choice and the traumatic options taken by some mothers to escape their lives. Even the most liberal of interpretations, though, has problems. The “little men” (and by association child readers) are unquestionably being held responsible for their mothers’ anguish. The author is in essence blaming children for being exactly what children often are: messy, rambunctious, loud, and—yes—even naughty.

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997), by Robin McKinley

Beauty (1978)

McKinley - Beauty

This is the story as it should be told, with all of the beauty and love and magic of the original fairy tale, brought to life by McKinley’s rich narrative. We learn to like Beauty and her difference from other girls, to identify with her as a character. She loves to read, is rather plain, and loves her family dearly. Her choices and those of her family make logical and emotional sense to the reader, which strengthens the magic of the tale. The Beast, too, we come to love as Beauty does. It is perhaps easier for us, as we know the story, and she doesn’t. But the saving grace of McKinley’s story is that the Beast is never beastly to Beauty; the story remains one of judging others for what they are inside. It does not have the insidious negative social message that the Disney version presents to us, of loving a man even when he is abusive. There is no domestic abuse in McKinley’s tale; Beauty is not beautiful; the Beast is under a wicked spell, but is a good man at heart.

Rose Daughter (1978)

McKinley - RoseMcKinley revisits her retelling of Beauty and the Beast, in what she considers to be the superior of the two. I agree with her book-borrowing fans, though, that this is not the case. Rose Daughter is too… well, just too. There is too much angst in the family at the outset, although this is more in keeping with the two selfish older sisters of the original tale, and after their financial fall, the girls becomes better friends, as is true in Beauty. What Rose Daughter is too, mostly, is overladen with allusion. We do not perceive in it the simplicity of the magic fairy tale world that Beauty presents us with; it is far more a medieval fantasy of sorcerers and social politics, of ways of magic that McKinley has instilled in her own text that do not have a source in fairy tale trope. And in the end, we are not given the satisfactory return to humanity for the Beast. Perhaps this message is powerful in one way—Beauty does not demand beauty of her spouse—but at the same time, it narratively untenable, for why would the magic-believing villagers welcome the Beast, in all his beastliness, as Beauty’s husband? McKinley posits an explanation, but it does not convince. I think the final shortcoming I need mention is that the balance is off. in Rose Daughter, we spend far too much time in Beauty’s mind, her experience, to get to know the Beast as we do in Beauty; nor is the magic personified, bringing both mystery and emotional solace to Beauty in her plight. The result is a longer, less gripping tale, definitely for older readers, but not more powerful for being more mature in nature.

The Princess Academy (2005), by Shannon Hale

Hale-Princess AcademyThis is a surprisingly refreshing twist to the standard “rags to riches” Cinderella plot.  Our heroine is sent with the other girls from her poor mountain village to a “princess academy” to learn manners and etiquette, as the priests have prophesied (as they do unerringly) that the next princess would come from this village.  The story is largely about the dynamics between the girls, and the lessons they learn—both from books and from each other.  What makes this tale so refreshing is that Miri, the protagonist, is uncertain whether or not she wants to be princess, although she knows she wants to best the school bully for other reasons.  Her learning brings knowledge and prosperity in commerce to her village, and happiness to herself and her friends.  The outcome of the story is not easily anticipated, but is welcome in its appropriateness for the characters Hale has created for us.

Stardust (1998), by Neil Gaiman

A star falls in Faërie, and is hunted by three separate individuals for their own gain.  This story is an original plot line, although like other magical fantasies it combines a number of known tropes and mythologies. Like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the audience is not well defined: the style is very much in keeping with the narrative voice and fairy-story style of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which makes it seem like a children’s or very young adult novel, while the content (descriptive [although not graphic] passages of a sexual nature, for example) place it on the adult shelves in most bookstores. Wikipedia asserts that this is the “first solo prose novel by Gaiman,” but I think I would consider that NeverwhereStardust was in the first instance a “novel with pictures,” serially published in comic/graphic novel form; then a hardcover novel without images; then a 2007 movie which, while necessarily different, is as entertaining and engaging as the print versions (in my estimation).