Friday, February 15, 2013

Fairytales' Enduring Appeal

Marissa Meyer
photo c Julia Scott
Why do fairytales endure? Why does a retelling of Cinderella as a cyborg (Cinder) and Little Red Riding Hood as the granddaughter of a spy (Scarlet, both by Marissa Meyer) captivate teen readers? At their simplest and most important level, fairytales are about good triumphing over evil. The darkness (midnight for Cinderella) and the forest (for Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and a host of others) bring about a change and a coming of age. Retelling fairytales offers an author the chance to split open an archetype.

We see this for youngest readers in books such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith; for middle-graders with A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz; and with Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles for teens. Her heroines from Cinder and Scarlet save their own skins. They don't wait for any prince or woodsman to save them. They assert their own powers of intelligence and plan their own escape routes.

Meyer ups the ante by placing Cinder and Scarlet in a futuristic world where the stakes are higher. It's not just their own futures at risk, but also the future of the planet Earth. Queen Levana plots to take control of the Earth to gain greater control of the galaxy. Yet Meyer keeps readers deeply invested in the characters she creates--Cinder, Emperor Kai, Cinder's android companion Iko, Scarlet, Scarlet's grandmother, Wolf--so that the larger plot never feels over the top. It's a delicate balancing act.

When I got to interview Marissa Meyer, she said that, as the series progresses, we see more of Queen Levana and what makes her tick. Like Cinder's stepmother or Scarlet's Wolf, Queen Levana is not all bad. "That's a goal for me as a writer--to make the villains as real and interesting as the good guys are," Meyer said. We see that with Donna Jo Napoli's portrayal of the witch from Hansel and Gretel in The Magic Circle, and more of what motivates Cinderella in Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. What Meyer does is create a longer trajectory that integrates several fairytales in one four-book story arc. We can hardly wait until next January for the third installment of her tale.

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