Wake Up Little Princess (and Prince) by Liesl Shurtliff
It’s inevitable. During a Q&A with a group of kids I will always be asked the following: Are you going to write a princess tale? Cinderella? Sleeping Beauty? Snow White? I get a little squeamish and politely say, “Maybe someday,” or “I haven’t gotten an idea for those stories yet,” while on the inside I silently scream, “NEVER! I WILL NEVER WRITE A PRINCESS TALE!”
Well now I get to eat my silently screamed words because today is the day I release my first “princess tale” Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
As you might have already guessed, the viewpoint character is not Snow White. Instead, I have chosen to write it from a more marginalized character, one of the seven dwarves. His name is Borlen, a.k.a. “Grump.” The idea for this story came to me while writing my last book Red. On her journey, Red meets a grumpy dwarf, Borlen, and in the course of conversation Borlen calls Snow White a “spoiled brat.”
It came out of nowhere. It surprised me when I wrote it. Why would a dwarf call Snow White a spoiled brat? The seven dwarves love Snow White! She sings with the birds! The bunnies hop in her wake! She bakes the most delicious apple pies! SNOW WHITE IS A SPOILED BRAT!
Whoa. I have some unresolved issues with princess stories. It’s time for some fairytale psycho-analysis. Let’s rewind a few decades.
I adored princess tales as a girl. Disney’s Cinderella was my favorite, followed by Sleeping Beauty. I also loved Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre and all the princess ballets. I loved the twirling dresses, the glass slippers, the singing and dancing in the woods, the romance of pricking your finger on a spindle and falling asleep for a hundred years until one day a handsome prince comes along and wakes you with true love’s kiss. I fantasized about these things ALL THE TIME. I wanted it all.
Fast forward a few decades. I have been married for sixteen beautiful years, I have four kids, and though I can say with complete honesty that choosing to become a wife and mother was the best decision I ever made, there have been some startling realizations—just one among many that being kissed awake by a stranger is SUPER CREEPY! (Fear not. This has never happened to me.)
It’s never too early to talk about sexism, misogyny, and gender bias and stereotypes with kids, and we can do this wonderfully well, even without awkwardness or discomfort, while reading some older stories, particularly fairytales. Sometimes the kids pick up on it without any prodding. In my school visits, I do a reader’s theater of Rumpelstiltskin. The Miller’s daughter is often a source of confusion. “Why would she marry the king if he threatened to kill her?” “Why didn’t she just run away from her father?” These questions usually result in a fantastic discussion about women’s rights in medieval times (spoiler alert: they didn’t have any), and how that’s different today, though still worth discussing where gender inequality might still exist. I talk about fairytales in general and point out that in many of them the females are generally passive (sometimes completely incapacitated!) They’re locked in towers or dungeons, put under spells, and sold off in marriage against their will. There are few exceptions. Hansel and Gretel is one of the few fairytales where a girl saves the day. (Go, Gretel! Burn that cannibalistic witch!) But in most, the females have little or no say over their destinies. They’re at the mercy of a fairy godmother, some mysterious helpers, or a prince or knight. A lot of dramatic things happen TO the girls, but they don’t DO much of anything. What is this saying to our girls? What is it saying to our boys? Is it an accurate depiction? How does it inform each gender about the opposite, shape our attitudes, and perhaps even our actions?
Now I could write some retellings that make these princesses the heroines of their own stories, bring them up to date a bit. There are indeed some wonderful princess retellings out there with some very active princesses who need no rescuing (or at least a minimal amount.) Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine will always be a favorite as well as The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. But I decided to take another route. Sometimes the most effective way to show the ridiculousness of something is simply to show it from another viewpoint.
I never thought I’d write a story about Snow White. For crying out loud, she has seven helpers (who all happen to be male), a sleeping spell, true love’s kiss, and she gets carried off by a complete stranger! This story goes against all my feminist sensibilities. I can’t work with this! And then Borlen the dwarf came along. His point of view allowed me to write a princess tale with a little more comfort, poking fun at some of the ridiculous notions in the original, and recasting some of the gender stereotypes. Snow White may be a bit bratty, with some unrealistic romantic ideas, but she’s a capable gal, while her prince is more on the quiet, sensitive side and struggles with the heroics. Also, who says all seven dwarves need to be male? That’s pretty sexist too if you ask me. Plus, I felt it’d be less creepy for Snow White to live with the seven dwarves if there were some lady dwarves in the mix.
So here’s my ode to princess tales and breaking gender stereotypes in thoughtful, deliberate ways. We all need to wake up, then turn around and help our young readers wake up, too. It’s time.
Liesl Shurtliff is the author of the New York Times bestselling Fairly True Tales series. Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is her latest romp through The Kingdom. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four kids. Visit her at lieslshurtliff.com and Twitter @lieslshurtliff.