October 5, 2020
“Why are there no girls in this story?” my daughter asked when we first read The Hobbit together. I had never asked myself that question. I hadn’t even noticed that there were no women in The Hobbit. Once I noticed, however, it became impossible to un-notice. I became aware of how many classic children’s stories feature no or very few girls and women, and where they do feature, the casual sexism is extraordinary.
The early Thomas the Tank Engine books sum it up: Girls and women are ‘carriages’ rather than ‘engines’. They are weak and silly. Grimms’ fairy tales offer sleeping beauties, helpless maidens, and wicked old women. The mother in Treasure Island (the only woman in the story) causes trouble by fainting. The women in Asterix are dim and gullible. In Watership Down, females are reduced to voiceless warren makers and breeding machines. In Little Women, Jo needs to learn to manage her temper and her expectations of life, while little Beth with her self-effacing, servile work ethic is presented as an example to us all.
As a child, I got annoyed with Anne in Famous Five for making yet more cucumber sandwiches instead of exploring that cave. I wondered why Rapunzel didn’t just cut off her hair, make a rope, and get the heck out of that tower? Nobody I knew had any answers. However, the subliminal messages stuck.
The stories we hear and read as a child shape our behaviour and beliefs as adults, and help to perpetuate the deeply engrained sexism in our culture. Prompted by my daughter’s question about The Hobbit, I reread my own childhood favourites the Grimm’s fairy tales from a feminist angle.
Then, one morning, I woke up with the Frog Prince rewritten in my mind:
“I shall play with you, and eat with you, and sleep with you,” said the frog.
“Oh no,” said the princess.
“Oh yes,” said the frog.
And he did.
Somehow, my sleeping brain had distilled my issues with that story to its core: The coercive control of father and frog over the princess, forcing her into a situation she feels deeply uncomfortable with.
I leapt out of bed. By the end of the day, I had retold twelve well-known fairy tales as funny microfiction retellings. It became a game, but how could I develop these stories into a publishable concept?
Just around that time, I attended the first Primadonna Festival, where I put this question to Lisa Milton from HarperCollins at a ‘pitch surgery’. When I showed her my stories, she had the kind of fairy tale reaction every author dreams of. “I love this!” she said, “Let’s make it happen.”
So, with the help of HQ’s wonderful editor Nira Begum, the concept expanded to include retellings not only of fairy tales, but also nursery rhymes, classic children’s books, films, and myths.
The Princess and the Prick won’t stop you from enjoying your favourite childhood stories. Rather, I hope it will make you laugh. And when your child next asks you why there are no women in this or that story, or why Rapunzel doesn’t just fashion her own rope, you will know what to say:
Let’s rewrite that story together, shall we?
The Princess and the Prick is out on 15th October. You can preorder it here.
(This post was first published on the Harper Collins HQ Stories blog here)