Good morning! It’s Sunday, which means Jen is hosting the weekly check-in on her blog, Teach Mentor Texts.
Grace Lin is our guest author here today! Grace is the author of the Newbery Honor book WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, and its new companion book, WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER as well as the Ling & Ting series for emerging readers and a pile of other great books. She joins us today to talk about the magic writers can find in fairytales!
Retelling Fairytales is like Redecorating a House
As a writer, I love retelling fairytales. I like to think of it as refurnishing a well-built house. You already know that the structure is solid, what you are doing is just changing it to your own tastes.
Though, that can be a challenge, too. How do you make a house that has belonged to another family for generations into your own home? How can you dare to take down that porch (which you think is ugly) when it’s been there for hundreds of years?
But think about it this way—for that house to be lived in, for that house to again hold life, it should be adapted for a new owner. That is like our classic stories—for them to continue to live, we should allow them to change for our new generations, for better or worse. I often think about my time in Rome, Italy when I saw a famous Bernini statue sitting in the middle of a busy street, ageing and discoloring. “That’s terrible,” I said to my Italian companion, “In the US, that would be in a museum!” My friend looked at me in shock, “But putting it in a museum would be like killing it! Here it is looked at and enjoyed, it is a part of life.”
Our classic stories are like this. We can let them change and be a part of our modern lives. And as writers, we are the ones that get to do it!
How? Well, for me, it’s allowing myself to ask, “What if?” One of my favorite stories when I was a child was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ but it was also one that caused me the most pain. As I mention in my TEDx talk, in fifth grade a fellow student told that I could not play Dorothy in the school play because I was Chinese. Devastated, I was so convinced that she was correct that I didn’t even try out at the audition.
Yet, what if Dorothy was Chinese? Why couldn’t she be? What if she didn’t have to be in Kansas at all? What if she wasn’t even called Dorothy, at all?
Because the wonderful, magical thing about stories is that anything can happen. Why is it crazy for Dorothy to be Chinese when her house actually flies to another world? How could that be more unrealistic?
Of course, “what if” questions can be fraught with layers of concerns, especially if—like me—you are choosing to adapt a story that is not exactly of your culture. When I rework a Chinese story, I often worry that I anger traditionalists with my “Americanization” of the stories (a girl, for example, would never go on an adventure). And, with the attention given to diversity (which I think is a really good thing), I know many people worry about “messing up” or “getting in trouble.” But, in the end, it’s just like redecorating that house. I do the best I can to be respectful of the neighbors, but I also have to change it to how I see fit, because I am the one that will live in it.
I hope you like living in yours!
Take a fairy tale with traditionally-set-in-stone characters and settings and ask yourself some “What if?” questions. How would the rest of the story go? (Fun tidbit! A character in my upcoming novel, “When the Sea Turned to Silver” was inspired by asking myself, “What if the Little Mermaid was Chinese?”) Here are some “What if” questions to start you out:
“What if Cinderella was a boy?”
“What if Jack (Jack in the Beanstalk) was a girl?”
“What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?”
“What if Goldilocks were black?”
“What if Hansel & Gretel took place in the sea?”
“What if Snow White’s mother was still alive?”